By Strategic Partner, John Barker
The State Liberal Government is experiencing more than its share of opposition from the “independent” Legislative Council.
It could be argued that some current members of the Legislative Council see themselves as a form of alternative Government rather than intended to be a House of Review.
The Legislative Council currently comprises 15 members including the President. It is convention that if the vote is tight on the Second Reading the President will vote to enable further debate of the proposed legislation to give the House the opportunity to consider amendments. But in the event of a tied vote on the Third Reading he will vote for the status quo.
While the Upper House prides itself on being an independent house the Labor party currently has three members, the Liberals two with ten independents.
Currently it appears that the ALP is more likely to oppose rather than support the Liberal Governments legislation. Thus party preference prevails above objective review.
Of the 11 remaining members on the floor of the House there appears to be a powerplay lead by the member for Murchison Ruth Forrest and a group of three others, who for various reasons are satisfied in opposing Government. That was certainly the case with the Forestry (Unlocking Production Forest) Bill to bring forward utilisation of an area of Crown Forest from 2020 until now, and the Sentencing Amendment for Serious Sexual Offences Against Children) Bill.
Thus an even vote is quite possible on any or all legislation now and into the future.
It is likely that the proposed legislation to enable the State Government to control and operate sewerage and water assets could face the same fate in the Legislative Council.
Continued opposition from the Legislative Council could encourage the State Government to call an early election to obtain a mandate. That is a risky strategy in the current political climate.
If the Liberal Government is re-elected there will be no change in the Legislative Council. It will comprise the same current members, as its members are not elected at the same time.
In fact it can be argued, the State Government obtained a mandate when it resoundingly won the last election with mandatory sentencing and forestry as strong policy platforms.
So how is the problem resolved?
One relatively simple option is for the President of the Legislative Council to have a deliberate vote. After all the President of the Senate can exercise a deliberate vote. That is unlikely however given that most Legislative Council members are likely to oppose change to the Standing Orders to preserve their current influence.
Currently the electorate represented by the President of the day can be disenfranchised. Why should that be?
Another is to ensure all proposed legislation is able to proceed to the Committee stages of debate for consideration where it can be amended by the Council. This still enables Legislative Councillors to exercise their opposition and ensure provision of meaningful amendments.
Another option is the reinstatement of a deadlock mechanism, compulsory Managers Conferences, which for many years successfully resolved most disagreements on legislation between both Houses of Parliament pre the Rundle Liberal Government deserves serious consideration.
The Managers Conferences, comprised eight members usually four Legislative Councillors and four members from the Government of the day, each nominated and endorsed by their respective Houses.
Usually they debated, compromised and reached a position, behind locked doors (a convention) recommending the outcome to their respective Houses.
Why hasn’t this occurred since the late 1990’s?
The Rundle Liberals governed in a minority, being opposed by Labor and the Greens who had the numbers on the all important Standing Orders Committee. Former Labor Premier Michael Field moved that Managers Conferences be abolished, it was supported by the Greens.
All that was then required was the passing of a simple motion on the floor of the House of Assembly. The minority Government duly lost and the Managers Conferences were consigned to history.
Some may argue there have been no disputes since the Labor/Green accord that have not been resolved by negotiation and briefings when amended legislation comes back from the Legislative Council.
Nonetheless a hostile Legislative Council is not conducive to effective democracy. At the very least if legislative Councillors wish to oppose on philosophical grounds, for example they should enunciate reasoned practical alternative solutions. I suggest by way of amendments.
John Barker is a former Tasmanian cabinet minister.