The Tasmanian government – the only remaining Liberal administration in Australia – is teetering on the edge of collapse after the attorney general, Elise Archer, resigned on Friday.
The issue came to a head after the Australian newspaper published text messages in which Archer had criticised her colleagues.
Here’s what you need to know.
Why did the attorney general resign?
Archer’s messages included apparently describing the premier, Jeremy Rockliff, as “gutless” and attacking former Liberal premiers Peter Gutwein (who she said had a “glass jaw”) and Will Hodgman (a “liar”). She declined to comment to the Australian on those specific text messages when they were published.
The paper also said at least two current or former members of Archer’s staff had raised allegations of bullying and inappropriate behaviour with the state’s anti-discrimination commissioner.
She told the Australian she had not yet been provided with details of the allegations but was “taking them extremely seriously”. “Therefore, I welcome an independent investigation,” she said. “I always strive to provide my team with a healthy and happy workplace.”
While these allegations were explosive, they were not – according to Rockliff – what prompted him to ask for Archer’s resignation from cabinet. He said he had taken that step after learning of remarks Archer had made that were “outside of what has already been reported”.
The details of those remarks were revealed on Saturday. Archer had texted a staff member that she was “sick of victim survivors”. It was part of a message in which she asked for comments on a social media post to be turned off. It came as the state was holding an independent commission of inquiry into the failed management of child sexual abuse in institutions over several decades.
Archer apologised and said it was a private message that had been taken out of context. According to the Mercury, said she had written the message quickly to ask her team to stop the publication of posts that were “calling me a f and c word”, and she had left out a key part of what she meant – that she was sick of abusive survivors “attacking me”.
She initially said on Friday that she would quit parliament but, after her message about abuse survivors became public, she said she was reconsidering remaining in parliament as an independent and backing a no-confidence motion in Rockliff.
What does this mean for the government?
Things are fluid, but it could mean the end of Rockliff’s premiership and prompt an early election. The government was already in minority, with only 11 members in the state’s 25-seat lower house since two conservative MPs quit the party and moved to the crossbench as independents in May.
Those two MPs – John Alexander and Lara Alexander – have criticised Rockliff over transparency issues, including the government’s financial support to build a stadium at Hobart’s Macquarie Point for a planned Tasmanian AFL team. They also disagreed with the moderate Rockliff on some social issues, including his support for the federal Indigenous voice to parliament, a treaty with First Nations people and a proposed ban on LGBTQ+ conversion practices.
The pair have voted against the government in parliament but have guaranteed to support it on matters of supply and confidence. Archer, seen as a “conservative warrior”, has not. If she stays as an independent and backs a no confidence motion in Rockliff with Labor, the Greens and progressive crossbenchers it could bring down the government and trigger an early election.
Are there other potential roads ahead?
Archer has reportedly said she might consider offering confidence to a Liberal government not led by Rockliff. But according to the Australian she is also not supportive of the conservative Michael Ferguson, the deputy premier who is widely seen as Rockliff’s most likely successor. Ferguson has backed Rockliff in his dispute with Archer.
The other option is that Archer sticks with her initial plan and resigns as a member for Hobart’s Clark electorate rather than face accusations of betraying the party she has represented since 2010.
If she does leave, she would be replaced via a recount of votes at the 2021 election under the state’s Hare-Clark system. The electoral analyst Kevin Bonham says Simon Behrakis, a Liberal Hobart city councillor, would most likely be her replacement.
Rockliff told the ABC on Monday that it was in Archer’s hands whether the state would go to an early election.
What happens if an election is called?
It’s anyone’s guess. Legislation has passed to increase the state’s lower house from 25 to 35 members at the next poll.
While Archer remains, the numbers in the current parliament are now 10 Liberal, eight Labor, two Green and five independents. Four of those independents were elected as major-party candidates at the last election.
The next election will involve seven MPs being elected in each of the state’s five electorates. With the government nearly a decade old and tired and embattled and Labor yet to resolve deep internal divisions that led to it being placed under federal administration, poll watchers say it is difficult, if not impossible, to imagine either party having the support necessary to win the 18 seats to form a majority government.
On the other hand, the election is not due until May 2025 and some potential candidates outside those already in parliament may not yet be ready to run. If it happens, it appears likely to be one of the least predictable elections in recent Australian history.