Tasmanian Opposition Leader Rebecca White maintains personal appeal but Labor still lagging
Rebecca White says Labor has already begun campaigning for the next state election. (ABC News: Rob Reibel)
Rebecca White has finished the year ahead of Will Hodgman in the preferred premier stakes, but it was a rocky start to 2018 for the Tasmanian Opposition Leader.
After announcing the party’s major pokies policy in 2017, before the campaign had officially begun, Labor appeared to have run out of steam by the time the March state election arrived.
The Liberal campaign was a well-oiled machine, and Rebecca White didn’t lead Labor to victory.
Ms White said her party’s intention was to campaign hard on issues including health and education.
Labor leader Rebecca White announced Labor’s gambling policy four months before the March state election. (ABC Hobart: Leon Compton)
But the party’s health policy was announced with little fanfare, compared with the Liberals, who made it the focus of their campaign.
Ms White admits Labor’s policy to phase out poker machines overwhelmed the campaign.
“That matter just became one that seemed to consume a lot of the media headlines,” Ms White said.
The policy was a drastic change from the status quo, and the interest it generated from local and interstate media should have been foreseeable to strategists.
Ms White said she stood by the policy, because it was based on evidence, as well as meetings with dozens on businesses and not-for-profit organisations.
“I think on reflection everyone will dissect the timing, the policy, the decision.
“I can’t change what happened.”
Keeping up pressure
Despite the loss, Labor clawed back three seats at the state election.
And on the first day of Parliament, Rebecca White had a win, orchestrating Sue Hickey’s ascent to the speakership.
On the last sitting day, Ms White moved an unsuccessful no-confidence motion in the Premier.
She didn’t miss a beat, defending tactics that could be seen as an intention to bring down the Government, rather than holding it to account.
“My focus is on holding this Government to account, I want them to do better,” Ms White said.
“There’s no doubt there are problems in a number of key areas that they’re simply not addressing and to bring on a no-confidence motion in the Premier is just to demonstrate that he’s not showing the leadership that we expect or that the people of Tasmania expect.”
In 2018, Labor members have tried to grab headlines with easy one-liners: the party has called for Health Minister Michael Ferguson to be sacked; members have rallied for Braddon MP Adam Brooks to step down, and Labor referred the Sarah Courtney matter to the Integrity Commission.
Ms White rejects any suggestion that’s coming at the expense of policy work.
“We’re very focused on building on the work we took to the 2018 election, so we’re reviewing those policies and we’re building from that,” she said.
White says her leadership is stable
Asked if Labor would support a Greens bill on euthanasia, Ms White bristled.
“The Labor Party will examine any legislation like that on its merits, of course, but the Labor Party will be running its agenda,” she said.
“And we’re not going to be manoeuvred by any other political party, whether that be independents, the Liberal Party or the Greens.
“The Labor Party is the only party that can be the alternative government, the Greens are never going to be and I would never do a deal with the Greens.”
When he was re-elected to the Parliament, David O’Byrne said he was happy for Ms White to stay in the driver’s seat. (ABC News: Emily Street)
The Government has loved nothing more than to poke the Opposition Leader about how safe her leadership really is, with unionist David O’Byrne back in Parliament this year.
Ms White said Labor had already begun planning for its next state campaign.
“I’m absolutely committed to leading the Labor Party to the next election and I know I’ve got the full support of my caucus and the broader party.”
Rebecca White’s leadership has already been tested within her party.
Ms White was criticised for not congratulating Will Hodgman when she conceded defeat. (ABC News: Georgie Burgess)
In September, members of Tasmanian Labor’s powerful left faction were agitating to have one of Ms White’s staffers removed from her office, claiming Dean Winter didn’t hold “Labor values”.
Ms White intervened.
“It was certainly a problem for some people and I spoke with those people directly,” Ms White said.
“Those matters are always going to come up from time to time but my firm belief is that you deal with those things one-on-one, you don’t take them through the media.
“I think it’s fairly untidy at times to do that, and it’s not good for organisational culture.”
Mr Winter is now the Kingborough Mayor, and has left a policy hole in Ms White’s office.
Leader remains guarded with media
How the party approaches 2019 will be interesting to watch.
After the March election Ms White held a shambles of a press conference, in which she acknowledged her failure to congratulate Will Hodgman on his win, and was peppered with questions about David O’Byrne and her leadership.
Her adviser didn’t cut off questioning and it was a terse Ms White who eventually said “that’s enough” and walked away from the cameras.
Ms White’s poise with the media has improved since then, but she remains more guarded and has less cut-through than her predecessors Bryan Green and Lara Giddings, and she’s less relaxed than her competition, Will Hodgman.
Ms White puts her guardedness down to the responsibility she feels.
“I am very mindful of the way I project myself and importantly the messages that I share because this is about the potential for a Labor government.”