WHAT most people did see was the return of a Labor majority government — a turn of events that defied all opinion polling until the closing days.

Tasmanian voters also witnessed a lavish advertising blitz designed to drive fear into their hearts. Fear is a potent political weapon. By election day enough voters blindly associated minority government as tantamount to contracting leprosy or AIDS.

And, on that basis, several thousand Tasmanians meekly changed their intended vote at the 11th hour.

Whether or not multi-party government is actually a good or bad thing for democracy is a much debated intellectual issue amongst political scientists, but now a moot point. The fear factor has sidelined any rational debate about that issue in the minds of the Tasmanian body politic.

Regardless of any intellectual merits or otherwise, the public mindset is now solidified in concrete, much to the relief of one man, Michael Kent — business entrepreneur and champion of the big retail industry. 

Kent was an anonymous figure in the Tasmanian election until, in the dying days, when he was identified as a key funder of a shadowy front group Tasmanians for a Better Future (TFBF). Billed as a grassroots community pressure group TFBF placed slickly professional newspaper and television advertisements, prepared by the professional public relations agency Corporate Communications.

Powerfully emotive

The advertisements were powerfully emotive and proved to have an incisive impact on voters.

As to their precise impact, one does not have to be a rocket scientist to work out the rough figures. Over a four day period opinion polling showed a conversion of voting intention, translated into real result, of some 20,000 voters. Owing to its small size advertising in Tasmanian media is relatively cheap so an investment of a mere $100,000, well placed, can change enough votes to alter the outcome of government — a fantastic investment opportunity for certain interests.  With Tasmania’s Hare Clark electoral system who wins and loses often comes down to a handful of votes and preferences.

TFBF ads, as well as those backed by the logging industry and a fundamentalist religious group, totally swamped the media and household letterboxes in the final week. Nobody knows how much money was forked out for them. On the final weekend of the campaign every single ad break on evening commercial TV featured an attack on minority government. Full-page advertisements appeared in the three daily papers every day.  No previous Australian election campaign had ever seen such an avalanche of negative advertising, paid for by vested interest groups. 

For the Green party (and the hapless Liberals) this saturation campaign was catastrophic to their predicted election chances.
Lest there be any argument over which advertising sponsor carried the day, forest logging has been an intense focus of Tasmanian politics for many years, so the hearts and minds of voters would not do a summersault overnight on that perennial issue.

Owing to the highly controversial impact that Tasmanians for a Better Future advertisements were having on the election outcome, it was inevitable that media would probe the identities behind it and TFBF’s financial backers. However, manager of Corporate Communications Tony Harrison had to suffer the embarrassment of not being able to disclose the identities, arguing that he was bound by commercial–in–confidence agreements with his clients.

There is nothing in Tasmanian law that require corporate sponsors to identify themselves in election advertising, so long as such advertisements simply carry the name and address of an authorising individual.  So, there we have it! Without any illegality being committed, the Tasmanian democratic election process was being dramatically influenced by some very well heeled but camouflaged ‘entities’. This secrecy naturally raised eyebrows and some minor media attention, but, as happens in a rarefied election climate, all of this obscure muddy stuff goes over the heads of all but a few informed voters and political insiders. What counted was the impact of the ads, not who paid for them. 

What was exposed is that Chamber of Commerce Chairman, Michael Kent was the key organiser and major financial contributor. It was in Mr Kent’s interests to make known his pivotal key role, as we shall see below.

Who is Michael Kent?

Kent maintained in the media that his involvement was ‘altruistic’ and ‘personal’, and further that he had forked out his own money to back the publicity campaign. Fair enough, but why would anybody be so altruistically disposed to an election outcome as to personally pay for it to come about — unless they had some sort of vested interest?

So, who is Michael Kent?

Not a casual philanthropist.

Kent first made a name for himself as a business entrepreneur as owner/manager of the Tasmanian supermarket chain Purity (later absorbed into the national Woolworths chain for a tidy sum).  With his continuing engagement in the retail business arena, Kent has campaigned for years for market deregulation, in particular seven-day-trading. Stridently opposed by the small retail trading lobby (corner stores) it took many years of bitter disputation before seven-day-trading finally took effect, especially since Liberal Party supporters comprised many small retailers business owners. However, with the global mantra of market deregulation on his side it was inevitable that the small traders would eventually be worn down and the large retailers’ agenda was finally achieved.
 
What Michael Kent and the Chamber of Commerce did not achieve by then was full market deregulation. There is now another deregulation agenda being strenuously played out behind the scenes. Oblivious to most Tasmanians, a protracted dogfight has been waged for a number of years over who can and can’t sell alcohol, and this is the real story behind Mr Kent and the Tasmanian election campaign.

At present alcohol sales in Tasmania are regulated in favour of registered outlets, mostly hotels and drive-in bottle shops. Kent and the large supermarket conglomerates want large shopping outlets to sell grog — as is the case in some other jurisdictions. Just as with seven-day-trading, again we have a silent corporate war going on, the dominant supermarket chains (championed by Michael Kent) versus a bivvy of smaller drive-in liquor outlets. (To make matters more complex one of the major liquor outlets, BWS, is also owned by the Woolworths chain.) And let’s make no mistake, the stakes are very high; a change to the status quo of liquor trading laws would jeopardise many jobs in the present liquor retailing sector, many smaller Tasmanian outlets would go to the wall.

Major looming obstacle was minority government

Michael Kent is philosophical and patient about the time it takes to bring about policy change. But he knows all the ingredients, like the back of his hand. He knows that market deregulation, has a certain inevitability about it. Removing regulation and red tape is the mantra of economic reformers: “unless you adopt market reform, you don’t stay competitive”.  He knows that public sentiment (as with seven-day-trading and gambling machines in your local pub) will always side with the convenience factor. Ask ordinary people if they want the convenience of buying their grog at the grocery store they will give a resounding ‘Yes’? He therefore knows that initial opposition to, and moral disquiet about, regulatory change will eventually be worn down.

But Michael Kent also knows that he has to win over support politically.  His only major obstacle is getting the decision makers to change their minds. That means the government of the day, and any other parliamentary blocks that can inhibit market reform going his way. Most pertinently, his major looming obstacle was minority government. Kent knew from experience that the Greens in parliament had previously strongly opposed market deregulation, and had been instrumental in blocking or delaying the transition to seven-day-trading, and widespread extension of poker machines. The prospect of minority government forming would be a major blow to his crafted agenda to get further market deregulation, including changes to liquor trading laws, through the parliamentary system in the coming term.

The power of the Greens to exert a moderating influence on the governing party is much enhanced in a minority government context, so this prospect had to be foiled as a priority. As we now know, the election outcome removed this — in Kent’s word — ‘poisonous’ impediment to good government and market reform. 

The liquor trading dogfight is in its early days. Both sides have lobbied the former Lennon administration and there is currently a stalemate, with temporary guarantees being made to protect existing liquor traders. (Minor concessions have been made, enabling Tasmanian bottled wines to be sold in certain outlets but the status quo remains largely intact.) 
 
Now that the election dust has settled, the focus is about to turn to what the new administration will do in its coming four year term. Labor is aware that they owe their re-election, in large part, to Michael Kent. They know that his campaign delivered them at least two seats they otherwise would not have got, and therefore government in their own right. In political parlance, Kent has earned big favours that must now come to him. Although such favours are always denied and never transacted through transparent deals, it is the subtle way of politics, nonetheless. And, what’s more, it is perfectly legal.

Social problems

Any immediate moves to change trading laws would smack of opportunism and expose political wheeling and dealing. But Kent the entrepreneur knows that he must make his strike during this parliamentary term, whilst he has political certainty and favours that are owed. He has to persuade the parliamentary decision makers that supermarket trading of liquor can be regulated in such a way that alcohol sales through supermarkets do not pose social problems.  These arguments are already drawn up and part of the dogfight being waged within the industry. Further, he has to avoid the development of any spirited public campaign that can derail his agenda, knowing there is an historical latent pressure on Labor governments not to enact laws that are socially regressive.

It is prudent for the liquor sales industry to be prepared for a surgical strike some time in the coming four years. It is in the public interest for the Tasmanian people to know the issue early, to avoid reforms being crashed through by the majority government before the people have a chance to understand the social implications and economic arguments. And it in the interests of opposition members of parliament, Liberals, Greens and Legislative Councillors to be prepared for a showdown.
Much of his potential opposition is already diffused. Kent is fully aware that Liberal party philosophy strongly sides with market deregulation and he was careful in his election campaign not to alienate the Liberal opposition, despite his backing for the only majority government that was on the cards — Labor.

‘A certain inevitability’

At the end of the day, Mr Kent has the numbers and a golden political opportunity before him. He has to bide time a little, but he is a patient man. And, as experience of history demonstrates, Michael Kent has ‘a certain inevitability’ on his side.

Before vote counting began, the Tasmanian Electoral Commissioner duly announced that the elections had been clean and above board. That is, no ballot boxes were stolen, advertisements were duly authorised and no major irregularities had occurred. Unlike places such as Burma and Zimbabwe, Tasmanians enjoy a perfect electoral system, it would seem.

Yet little by little, our election processes are being subverted by the market economy. Commercial investment in election outcomes is rapidly becoming an order of the day. Corporate Communications now has verifiable money-for-votes investment figures for its future clients. Though our electoral process may be ticked off as technically perfect, the fairness of elections has been almost totally usurped by the market. That there is no scandal about this is telling. The protectors of our democracy should pay close attention.

Michael Kent is officially Chairman of the Tasmanian Chamber of Commerce and Industry and also Chairman of the dominant gambling agency, TOTE Tasmania.
Michael Kent photo: From here

Chris Harries is a Tasmanian based writer and social advocate.