Time to grasp the nettle on parliamentary reform
By Managing Director Becher Townshend
There has been much debate in recent years regarding the size of the Tasmanian parliament and while not wishing to enter the political fray of such things, it is important to articulate the reason why we need to increase the numbers of representatives in both of the state’s houses.
Put simply, if we are to be appropriately governed in Tasmania, we need the critical mass Tasmania of political members to ensure the functions of the parliamentary system can operate robustly.
With only 40 members this is difficult to achieve because there are only just enough members to undertake most of the required roles and it leaves little room should one or two people go ‘bang’ in a political sense.
As it currently stands, Tasmania has a 25 member House of Assembly or lower house and a 15 member Legislative Council or upper house.
Members of the House of Assembly are elected through a preferential voting system, that sees five members elected from five electorates that share the same boundaries and names as the federal House of Representatives seats – those being Denison, Franklin, Lyons, Braddon and Bass.
In the Legislative Council we have 15 unique electorates, whereby a single member is elected through achieving a majority of the vote.
Under the Westminster tradition, on which our electoral system is based, Government is formed in the lower house, while the upper house operates as a house of review.
With 25 members in the lower house, for Government to be formed it needs an outright majority of 13 seats or if it has less than this, is able to give the Governor comfort that it has support to put a supply (Budget) Bill though the house of assembly.
Currently Cabinet is made up of nine members, eight from the lower house and one from the upper house, this leaves two parliamentary secretaries and with the Government holding 15 seats in the Assembly, there are some four members on the backbench and a Speaker.
While that might work at the start of any four year term in Tasmania, it doesn’t take long for a couple of ministerial slips ups for the Government of the day to run out of backbenchers to select from.
As a result, Tasmania’s leadership suffers because put simply there is not a deep enough talent pool for Governments to choose Cabinet from and so we can end up with poorly qualified individuals in high office.
Couple this with Ministers being required to cover a multitude of varied portfolios (at last count 22) and you begin to get a picture of people that at times are not capable of holding the role, further being required to be across a variety of different issues at any given time.
And, the situation is not much better in the Upper House.
If the Legislative Council is to fulfill its role as a check and a balance on the excesses of Executive Government it must act as a house of review, which involves extensive committees, various investigations and a rigorous political debate of legislation.
With 15 members, the Upper House has attempted to deal with this by creating a two committee designed to review and investigate various areas of Government operations and while the system does work, over time the cracks of two full time committees can also begin to show.
All this leads to one simple issue, that being for the parliamentary system to work at a state level in Tasmania we need more elected members.
More members in both houses of parliament – say a return to 35 in the lower house and 19 in the upper will lead to better Governments, better Opposition and better review of parliamentary process, which is after all what it is all about.