While the new Premier has been lauded by pundits for his moderate gestures, austerity, corruption and the erosion of our democracy remain at the top of the order for the Tasmanian Liberals.
Jeremy Rockliff, much like his predecessor, has enjoyed a reputation as a willing moderate on a number of social issues. The Liberal Premier has come out in favour of changing the date of Australia Day to one more inclusive and has thrown his support behind a referendum based on the Uluru Statement from the Heart, one of the new federal Labor government’s marquee policies. Rockliff has also recently committed to restoring the Tasmanian House of Assembly back to its original size of 35 seats, a move Labor and the Greens have been championing since it was reduced to 25 in 1998.
Though welcome concessions – socialists must fight the narrative that Rockliff and the Tasmanian Liberals are somehow less morally bankrupt and corrupt than their federal counterparts. Their track record this year alone is enough to prove the very opposite.
Rockliff began the year by announcing his government’s first budget, characterised by real wage cuts and a complete failure to address the housing crisis.
The budget offered only a meagre 2.5% wage increase for workers in the public sector – which taking into account inflation, is a sizeable real wage cut. While devastating for all public sector employees, the Rockliff-Ferguson budget was a particular blow to health care workers, with the state historically suffering to retain and attract workers in that industry due to low wages. While the Liberals praised frontline health workers during nipaluna/Tasmania’s initial coronavirus wave, their only thanks has been slashing their wages during the most extreme cost of living crisis in recent memory.
The budget also failed to address lutruwita/Tasmania’s ever worsening housing crisis. While the Tasmanian Liberals have pledged 1.1 billion to create 10,000 new homes by 2030, the 2022-23 state budget allocates only 3.3% of this – casting their target into doubt.
The Liberals have also been rocked by integrity expert Geoffrey Watson’s recent findings on a controversial grant fund established during the 2021 state election. The ‘Local Communities Facility Fund’ allowed members of the party to determine which organisations were entitled to grants from a budget of nearly $15 million sourced from taxpayers.
The ABC revealed this year that current Sports Minister Nic Street used the fund to grant $50,000 to a branch of the Country Woman’s Association where a member of his family was the treasurer. The fund was also used to grant $165,000 to the charity St Vincent de Paul, of which Liberal hopeful Lara Alexander was the Tasmanian chief executive. As the grants were considered election promises, they never received external scrutiny by the Communities Department.
The explosive findings came just weeks after it was found that Liberal MHA Madeleine Ogilvie had announced a $150,000 taxpayer funded grant for the rowing club that her daughter is a member of in 2021.
The Liberals’ spearheading of anti-protest legislation under Rockliff’s tenure will perhaps be the Premier’s most enduring legacy. These changes to the Police Offences Act would find anyone who disrupts a business in the course of protest facing a $8650 fine, or up to 12 months in prison. Repeat offenders would face fines up to a maximum of $21,625 or a whopping maximum two and a half year prison sentence. The Liberals’ legislation would also see changes to public nuisance laws that would impose harsher penalties for those blocking vehicles or pedestrians in the street.
Disappointingly, the state Labor Party have joined with the Liberals to vote for these changes.
While the government has argued that the laws have been introduced to protect workers, unions have joined a chorus of dissent alongside civil society groups and environmental collectives, arguing that they are an affront to Tasmanians’ democratic rights. These unnecessary, draconian laws serve only to benefit the major parties’ corporate donors, while stifling any genuine direct action that could lead to positive political change.
Defeating this government’s particular brand of Toryism requires shifting the narrative from Rockliff as willing moderate to casting the Premier in his true light – that of a corruption enabling, austerity driven autocrat. Perhaps as importantly – it also requires the emergence of legitimate opposition to the Liberals in the form of a socialist workers party.