Accord and discord: An oral history of the Field government

SIGNING OF THE ACCORD: Greens leader Bob Brown, Franklin Greens MHA Gerry Bates, Bass Labor MHA Peter Patmore, Opposition Leader Michael Field, Lyons Greens MHA Christine Milne and Braddon Greens MHA Di Hollister.
SIGNING OF THE ACCORD: Greens leader Bob Brown, Franklin Greens MHA Gerry Bates, Bass Labor MHA Peter Patmore, Opposition Leader Michael Field, Lyons Greens MHA Christine Milne and Braddon Greens MHA Di Hollister.

Michael Field knew exactly why he was being booed on the night Labor lost the 1992 state election.

The former Premier was delivering his concession speech in the tally room at Wrest Point when the public turned on him.

“These were people who didn’t accept and, in many cases, didn’t understand what we had to do in government in order to put the state on the right path,” Mr Field told Fairfax Media.

Addressing the hostile audience, the vanquished Premier was nonetheless honest with his detractors.

“I said … the cuts, the recession and our relationship with the Greens … were the three elements that brought about our demise,” Mr Field said.

It was a time of great division in Tasmania, as conflict over the booming forest industry mounted, and the Franklin Dam saga was still relatively fresh in everyone’s minds.

Labor had been in power since 1989, when it had won only 13 seats and struck a fateful deal with the Greens – who had won a seat in each electorate - in order to form government.

The Liberals’ Robin Gray, sometimes called the Whispering Bulldozer, had overseen the running of the state for the preceding two terms of government.

The subsequent deal between the state’s two foremost progressive parties, dubbed the Labor-Green Accord, laid out the ground rules for the following three years.

Opposition Leader Michael Field congratulates the new Speaker of the House of Assembly Michael Polley in 1989. Picture: Dick Speer

Opposition Leader Michael Field congratulates the new Speaker of the House of Assembly Michael Polley in 1989. Picture: Dick Speer

And so Tasmania had its first minority government since the late 1960s.

However, not everyone was pleased with the outcome.

The state’s most prominent businessman Edmund Rouse attempted to bribe new Bass Labor MHA Jim Cox to cross the floor and prevent Labor from forming a government.

Mr Cox could not be bought, however, and reported the incident.

Mr Gray was cleared of any wrongdoing, while Mr Rouse was given a three-year jail sentence.

“The most powerful businessman in Tasmania being arrested on a bribery charge was a very big deal. It was the biggest press conference I ever had,” Mr Field laughed.

He said that, prior to the Rouse scandal, 2000 people had gathered at the Ulverstone Showgrounds to voice their opposition to the accord.

“There were whole movements,” he said.

“Then it went away.”

Then Greens leader Bob Brown said he didn’t demand Cabinet positions and neither did Labor offer them.

But the accord dictated that a Labor member would liaise with the Greens and report to Cabinet – that member was Denison Labor MHA David Crean.

“Entering my third term, I determined that we wouldn’t take ministries because it was important with three new members, and in covering the whole of the state, to get the best outcome we could,” Dr Brown said.

Bob Brown

Bob Brown

“It was the real arrival of the Greens as a force to be reckoned with in shaping the future of Tasmania.”

In exchange for a guarantee of confidence and supply, Labor bowed to the Greens on a number of issues.

Through the accord, the Greens were able not only to extend the World Heirtage Area by 600,000 hectares, but also to contribute to the formulation of nation-leading freedom of information laws.

That’s not to say it was all rosy for the two parties.

It wasn’t long before the new Premier discovered that the accord years would be frustrating for him personally.

“We were having enough ‘crisis in government’ stories without adding to them with the ones where I’d come out attacking the Greens for changing their mind after they’d supported a Cabinet decision,” Mr Field said.

“The Legislative Council … gave us a hard time from the right.

“We were besieged, I suppose the description would be.”

Australia was in a recession in the early 1990s and Tasmania, in particular, was feeling the brunt of it.

Interest rates were high, as was state debt.

“The first budget we put out was the last one we could have put together without going broke,” Mr Field said.

“So we had to do something about it.”

We were besieged, I suppose the description would be.

Michael Field

The government made cuts to state services in order to pay off its debt and handed out ample redundancies.

Mr Field’s successor, Liberal Premier Ray Groom, continued the former government’s pragmatic economic agenda.

“If you look at that period of government, that was the best feature of it,” Mr Groom said of the Labor-Green Accord.

“I continued to be pretty tough.

“It wasn’t just populist sorts of actions being taken but necessary steps.”

Mr Groom, who mounted a successful leadership challenge against Mr Gray in 1991, said minority governments were, by default, “in a weakened position”.

“We could see that from the Opposition benches as we watched [the Field government] struggle through that period,” he said.

Some might say it was appropriate that forestry, the biggest point of contention between Labor and the Greens, was the accord’s downfall.

The ceiling on woodchip exports could not exceed 2.88 million tonnes per annum, according to the accord.

And yet, in 1991, Mr Field introduced a bill to raise the ceiling.

“I warned him that if he did that, he would go,” Dr Brown said.

Mr Groom had not long been Opposition Leader when he heard rumours that a state election was in the air.

“My driver told me that he had heard a whisper from one of the other drivers that there was going to be an election,” Mr Groom said.

“Someone passed on the message, ‘Michael Field’s bought a new suit’.

“And I thought, ‘That’s probably a pretty good sign’.”

The 1992 election saw a 6 per cent swing against Labor, delivering Mr Groom a comfortable majority.

Mr Field and Mr Groom went head-to-head again at the 1996 election, with both leaders vowing not to form a minority government.

When a hung Parliament was returned, both resigned from the party leadership.

In 2003, Mr Field was made a Companion of the Order of Australia for his economic management during the accord years.

Economist Saul Eslake said Mr Field’s government – along with the Rundle minority government – was one of the best in Tasmania’s post-war history.

He reserved particular praise for Mr Field’s ability to steer the state through the worst recession since the Great Depression.

“Field had to clean up the financial mess left by Robin Gray,” Mr Eslake said.

Someone passed on the message, ‘Michael Field’s bought a new suit’.

Ray Groom

“Tasmania’s history says that minority government can work.”

Mr Field, though, remains unconvinced.

“The history of hung Parliaments in Tasmania since the Second World War has not been good,” he said.

“In fact, there’s not one that’s survived [into] a second term.”

But Dr Brown said it was the Labor-Green Accord that consolidated Tasmania’s clean, green image, which, he said, was the single biggest driver of the current tourism boom.

The “success” of the accord led to Dr Brown’s transition to federal politics.

“I thought, ‘That’s a pretty good legacy coming out of those accord years. I’ve got other things to move on to’,” he said.