Tasmanian Premier Will Hodgman has had mixed year of wins, losses and party rumblings
Will Hodgman and the Tasmanian Liberals started 2018 on a high.
A tightly-run election campaign and subsequent win should have been a sign of things to come for the Premier.
But a rogue Speaker, a ministerial affair and revelations about a former mining minister have taken the shine off Mr Hodgman’s second term.
There’s no denying the Liberals ran a better state election campaign than Labor — they were more organised, more “on message”, and they won.
Despite all that, Labor managed to claw back three seats, making Mr Hodgman’s “stable majority” a slim one.
And its stability was tested early on.
Perhaps Mr Hodgman’s biggest mistake this year was to overlook Sue Hickey for a portfolio.
The newly-elected Liberal Member for Denison, now Clark, was straight out of one of the state’s most senior positions — lord mayor of Hobart.
To be relegated to the backbench seemed a slight to Ms Hickey, and the power of the Speakership must have seemed alluring — with Ms Hickey snatching the role from the unsuspecting Liberals in a stunning coup.
Mr Hodgman said he was surprised by Ms Hickey’s decision, but has moved on.
“We were planning for a different outcome but we managed it and that’s what we’re paid to do,” he said.
Ms Hickey’s decision to cross the floor and take the reins as parliamentary Speaker was only the first flex of her independence.
She later sided with Labor and the Greens on birth certificate legislation, the Adam Brooks matter, and using the media to call out failings in the health system.
Mr Hodgman has rejected suggestions Ms Hickey has become distracting for his Government.
But there’s no denying her headlines have detracted from the Government’s ability to sell its good news.
Will Hodgman leads a party meeting, soon after the election victory. (ABC News: David Hudspeth)
And there is good news in Tasmania. The budget is in surplus, tourists are flocking to the state and the Government’s legislation is getting through Parliament, albeit often amended.
But Ms Hickey has taken up a lot of airtime, and there isn’t much Mr Hodgman can do about it now.
“There is a time when I would have seriously considered [a portfolio], and I’m not going to pretend I wasn’t disappointed that I wasn’t offered one,” Ms Hickey told the ABC this year.
“But with reflection, I think things work in mysterious ways and I’ve landed in exactly the right spot for me to be the most effective politician I can be.”
Mr Hodgman’s best bet now is to keep Ms Hickey close, happy and busy.
Will Hodgman, with Treasurer Peter Gutwein (left) and Health Minister Michael Ferguson, both who retained their portfolios after the election. (ABC News: Scott Ross)
While Ms Hickey has stolen some of the headlines this year, it is MPs that Mr Hodgman handpicked for his Cabinet who have added to the drama.
The Sarah Courtney scandal was tailor-made media fodder — a Minister in a relationship with her department secretary will always sell papers.
Sarah Courtney watches as Will Hodgman announces she would be investigated over her relationship with DPIPWE head John Wittington. (Tasmanian Government)
But it was the cover-up and response that called into question Mr Hodgman’s oversight and decision-making, with Ms Courtney found to have breached the ministerial code of conduct by waiting a month to disclose the relationship.
Perhaps highlighting the Premier’s lack of options with a tiny backbench, Ms Courtney’s punishment was counselling and a new portfolio.
Just when it seemed the Adam Brooks matter would be relegated to the history books, the Integrity Commission highlighted in detail what lengths the former mining minister had gone to in order to hide his ongoing involvement with his mining services company from the Premier.
Both instances show the willingness of Mr Hodgman’s Cabinet to keep him in the dark.
But Mr Hodgman makes a distinction between the two scandals and seems personally offended by only Mr Brooks’s behaviour.
“Whatever position you’re in, you’re expected to adhere to a high standard, whether it be the ministerial code of conduct or just the standard that Tasmanians expect and he failed to do so,” Mr Hodgman said.
“Sarah’s circumstances were entirely different. It was a short period of time, she did the right thing by telling me what I did need to know.
“[Sarah Courtney] could have done it sooner in hindsight, she accepts that.”
Hodgman’s office not free from controversy
The behaviour of one of Mr Hodgman’s male staffers came under question when Ms Hickey told Parliament she was yelled at after crossing the floor in November.
Former staffers Brad Nowland (left) and Brad Stansfield (right) went into media consulting. (Supplied: Font PR)
Mr Hodgman has dismissed any suggestion of an ongoing issue with internal discipline.
“I spoke with the staff member in question and that matter was resolved to the satisfaction of parties,” Mr Hodgman said.
In a serious breach, a senior female adviser to the Premier was found to have used a fake social media account in an attempt to engineer the sacking of Angela Williamson from her role at Cricket Australia for her criticisms of the Government.
There have been other blunders.
An email glitch meant no media turned up to a major press conference; another was cancelled at the last minute after a development in the Angela Williamson matter, and the launch of a tourism prospectus was held days before the prospectus was ready for release.
While small in scale, these type of breakdowns in communication seem to be happening with more frequency in this term of Mr Hodgman’s Liberal Government.
Mr Hodgman lost a key strategist after the March election when Brad Stansfield stepped down from the chief of staff role, while another staffer with a good memory and eye for detail, Brad Nowland, was moved into the Treasurer’s office.
“The Brads”, as they became known, are now partners at a local PR firm — and with a business to build and an expertise in government, Mr Stansfield is regularly throwing stones from the sidelines in the form of opinion pieces.
The Government’s line is that Mr Stansfield is entitled to his views, but it is difficult to believe Mr Hodgman and his new team, including chief of staff Tim Baker, would not be at least a little annoyed.
The Premier talked a big game on health during the election campaign and re-installed Michael Ferguson as Health Minister.
Tasmanian health ministers since the 1960s have consistently not completed consecutive terms in the high-profile role, meaning Mr Ferguson will be the first minister for a long time to have to see through his first-term commitments.
But the Royal Hobart Hospital emergency department is not coping, nurses and paramedics are complaining about being stressed, overworked and understaffed — and even Ms Hickey has labelled the health situation a catastrophe.
The public’s discontent with the state’s health system was never so palpable as when Dr Frank O’Keeffe gate-crashed a press conference held by Mr Ferguson, telling the Minister that the Royal Hobart Hospital was like a “car that’s up on blocks”.
The Premier has said health is a top priority, but has blamed increasing demand.
“We are dealing with growing and ageing population,” Mr Hodgman said. “The requirement for us to invest more in our health system is obvious.”
Hodgman not going anywhere
As with any leader, rumour abounds from the outset about when they will throw in the towel.
Mr Hodgman has insisted he will be there come the next state election, in 2022.
“The last thing I’m thinking of is life after this; it’s a job that requires full commitment and I give it,” Mr Hodgman said.
“The opposition parties might wish that I’m thinking of a future career — it’s not happening.”