One of the first things that any driving instructor teaches new drivers is how important it is to constantly check your rear view mirrors. Knowing what is going on all around you, they say, is crucial for surviving on the roads. David Bartlett on the other hand, haunted by career-threatening poll results and grim internal focus group results, doesn’t want voters to look backwards before election day. Instead, he wants us to believe that amnesia is a virtue when it comes to the outgoing Labor administration.
In his first speech to the media after calling the March 20 election, one of Bartlett’s most commonly used words was “forward”—“look forward”, “go forward”, “going forward”, “take Tasmania forward”, “forward-looking”, and “keep Tasmania moving forward”. Sometimes forward was also used with the word “momentum” such as “maintain Tasmania’s forward momentum”, “we face the very real risk of losing that monetum” [sic],. Then there were variations on the theme such as “never before has the State been so well-positioned to take advantage of the great opportunities that lie before it” and “Tasmanians can vote to go forward with jobs growth and better public services under Labor”.
The other key goal of Bartlett’s speech was to try and position the Liberals as backward looking. Bartlett, keen to try and quarantine the fallout from a string of scandals that have unravelled throughout the Bacon, Lennon and Bartlett administrations, told journalists that “I predict my opponent will spend most of this campaign talking about the past.” But Bartlett wanted to do a little talking about the past himself. Elect the Liberals, he warned, and we will “go backwards to the failed and discredited policies Tasmania’s past with the Liberals.” A vote for the Liberals, he claimed, would be a vote for “high debt, privatisation, cuts to public services and high unemployment.”
It is a ambitious ploy - part pitched to Tasmanian voters but more aimed at the assembled journalists. Bartlett hopes that if he can effectively have journalists accept the “forward” “backwards” frames, then their reporting of the election campaign will focus on the avalanche of spending decisions his campaign has planned and downplay Bartlett administration scandals. It is also premised on the nonsensical idea that Labor doesn’t support privatisation and cuts to the public service.
Nor is trying to sell the idea that the actions of the Liberals from over a decade ago were bad or worse than Labor’s actions a sure fire bet. Harking back to a Liberal government of the mid-1990’s is unlikely to resonate with many first and even second-time voters, let alone the numerous people who have to Tasmania in the last decade.
As with his January 31 “Building a Strong Tasmania” speech Bartlett felt the need to offer up one more mea culpa, but with a positive twist. “Only Labor is willing to admit when mistakes are made and to move to fix them. We have shown that we are prepared to listen to the community and then take action,” he said.
It is an audacious but most likely doomed bid to turn public revulsion at government initiated screw ups into a positive. After all, most people will remember enough about the numerous scandals to know that the government has only responded after there has been a public reaction spurred either by citizens, community groups, the media or opposition parties. With memories of government scandals so vivid in the memory of voting Tasmanians, the risk for Labor is that the “forwards” “backwards” dichotomy will backfire.
It is likely that many will respond to Bartlett’s pitch extolling the virtues of political amnesia on Labor’s decisions as simply a request to vote for a government that will keep on screwing up ‘going forward’. In this context, going ‘backward’ may seem appealing to many voters weary of a government that can barely go a month without more revelations of backroom wheeling and dealing that have become the hallmark of the last four years.
The Liberals and Greens likely counterpoint to Bartlett’s ‘forwards’/‘backwards’ framing will be to stress their vision of “going forward” without a majority Labor government.