"The victim of the last great act of political bastardy in this country is the architect of this one.'
[Former ALP adviser Pete Hay (quoted in The Weekend Australian August 1-2, 1998, making an analogy between the dismissal of Gough Whitlam's government and Labor's role in State parliamentary reform earlier this year.]
Hay's comments certainly indicate the intensity of public feeling felt in some quarters over recent cuts to parliamentary representation.
But are they indicative of the way most locals feel about the issue?
Tasmanians Norm Adamczewski, Robert Bell, Simon Cubit, Fred Duncan, Neil McCormick, Annie Willock and John Shimmins offer their views....
Frustrating! The only way to describe Tasmania's major parties governing in minority.
Liberal, Labor, Green each with its own theology of what's best for us. Each believing that with a little compromise minority government could work. It does elsewhere in the world – why not in Tasmania?
Labor tried. And gave up in frustration, the demand for compromise too great. Labor vowed never again.
Liberal was hungry to govern. Compromise would work – just play the numbers game. Once again, party theologies met head on. Our future could not be compromised! Parliament hung....
The opportunity for one last compromise! Reduce the numbers in parliament – reduce the chances of ever governing in minority. No more compromise then! Party theology can march on unhindered. And the public will now forget the 40% – smaller parliament is delivered!
And yet the question remains unanswered. Minority government – why not in Tasmania? Perhaps the solution to that question lies in increasing the size of parliament. More opinions can be expressed. Compromises can be struck without under-mining party theology.
Yet think of the cost. Tasmania cannot afford it. Better not to take the chance....
Minority government – never again in Tasmania!
Yet Liberal, Labor, Green still remain. Each with its own theology of what's best for us....
The con trick played on Tasmanian voters has been utterly misunderstood by the mainstream media.
Tasmanians were rightly demanding that their parliament be brought to order; that waste, rorts, inefficiencies and mismanagement be ended. They were also seeking a resolution to the paralysis evident in their executive government. The short term solution offered by the major political parties was to reduce the number of politicians. Time will demonstrate that the change of numbers will have little effect on the above problems.
The gamble taken by the major parties is that voters will believe that parliamentary "reform" has taken place, that other "issues" will develop and require a new agenda, and that (for the short term at least) their own political futures have been saved. So far, the gamble has paid off.
Tasmanian voters have not had the opportunity to explore imaginative and really workable solutions to the problems of our governing. I suggest that one of Tasmania's most debilitating hindrances has been a senior public service which has become increasingly politicised and less accountable. We have an entrenched culture (perhaps even a cult) of advisors and consultants who are subservient to theories and practices which will eventually prove to be harmful to Tasmania. Globalisation, competition policy, privatisation and economic rationalism are all manifestations of international theories which emphasise money and things rather than people and communities.
If we are to defend our communities against these theories, perhaps we need more parliamentary representatives, rather than fewer. Perhaps we need to ask who will be there to ask the questions which will not be asked by the clones of the major parties. Perhaps it will not be very long before Tasmanian voters realise they have been short changed by an election which gave us fewer politicians, but will deliver a weaker democracy.
One of the great strengths of the democratic process in Tasmania has been ready access to the political process by the community through local members. Ministers, too, have been accessible to communiy and industry groups without a great deal of red tape.
The recent reduction in the number of State politicians and Cabinet ministers puts this ease of access at risk. The creation of super-departments responding to a smaller number of ministers means that ministers can never be truly familiar with the detail of their portfolios and will become increasingly dependent upon their minders and departmental advice. Alienation from the electorate is a real possibility.
This risk of political isolation, however, has been recognised by the Bacon government and addressed through the community forums, the first of which was held in Devonport on 11 October 1998. Valuable in their own right, these forums go a long way to redress the wider issue of political access. Time will tell if the opportunities they present are real and meaningful opportunities to influence the political process.
THE HOUSE OF DIS-ASSEMBLY
Why cut the numbers in Tasmania's Parliament, and in particular its most effective chamber, the House of Assembly? Forget about saving money and increasing efficiency. The answer is pretty obvious and has been stated many times – to get rid of the Greens. Those thorns in the side of the establishment, askers of prickly questions, nurterers of alternative views and often the source of good ideas. (They were also, at times, unrealistic, carping and just plain wrong, and had a tendency to pontificate from the high moral ground without accepting that they didn't represent the views of most Tasmanians). The Greens' commitment to retaining the many things that make Tasmania special, coupled with their idealism and global perspective on issues such as education and conservation, made them innovators in our society and in our Parliament.
So what are the consequences of our new partlamentary structure? It's hard to tell at this stage. Perhaps changing the committee system and developing a different working relationship between the chambers will produce more effective government. But my feeling is that we've been dragged kicking and screaming back to the 1960s. The sparkle associated with the Greens' ascendancy in the late 1980's is virtually extinguished. Gone is my feeling that this small island had a democratic system that was a model or beacon for many other communities.
I am concerned that many Tasmanians no longer have their views represented in the House of Assembly, and that even those who voted for the major parties will regret not having the cautionary or reviewing influence of representatives (Green, Red or Brindle) not aligned with the Liberal or Labor parties. We need only to look at the current Oceanport fiasco as an example of shoddy politics on the part of the major players. And what of the machinery of government – that rusty, groaning vessel that enacts laws, speaks for its citizens, and uses an antiquated compass to steer its course? What are the capabilities of its crew? How much talent is available in the government ranks? How many lateral thinkers, when the situation demands it? There's certainly a lot of less grey matter in a smaller parliament.
I noticed, before the last election, that some proponents of a small parliament promised to lift their work rate to 150% (or thereabouts). But will that be enough to cover the diverse portfolios which many of the ministers now enjoy, as well as catering for the requirements of their electorates? Will we get good decisions from such unbridled industry, possibly sustained by coffee, nicotine and the odd rush of adrenalin (as the balances provided by family and social life are placed on the backburner)? Or will we get the 150% being gradually whittled away, so that only "key" agencies are serviced adequately, while other areas struggle for attention, funds or survival? The same, of course, applies to the Opposition – the people whose responsibility is to keep the Government on its toes, offer alternative policies and so forth. How will they fulfil their functions with their reduced numbers and talent? Very poorly, if their current performance is anything to go by. For both major parties, advisors and consultants are likely to become more important in suggesting policies and direction. I suspect that the old adage of a consultant as someone who borrows your watch to tell you the time will still largely apply. Meanwhile the Greens, frequently the promoters of innovative solutions and alternative directions, have been largely reduced to a sidshow.
Joni Mitchell sang, "you don't know what you've got till it's gone". My feeling is that present and future Tasmanians will lament the scuttling of our unique democracy.
When asked to give my opinion on the effect the reduction of State Parliamentarians will have on Government and the public in Tasmania, I started writing a long, detailed description of what I thought the impacts would be and then found it was so confusing, I had trouble reading it myself! I have decided, instead, to give my "Plain English, Easy Reading" version of what I think has happened and will be happening in State politics.
1. Less pollies is good.
2. Less pollies means less parties represented. Therefore, few or no Greens, Democrats, Independents, One Nations, Tasmania Firsts, Australia Marijuana Parties, etc. just Labs and Libs.
3.Less parties means more chance of a majority government.
4. Majority Government means they can fulfil promises (Tongue in Cheek!)
5. Majority government means they can shaft you and tell you it's good for you.
6. Majority Government means party politics.
7. Party politics means that even though you voted for someone who said they will represent your view, they won't unless it happens to be the same view as the Party.
8. Debate will be easier in the new Parliament because the ruling party will only have to blame the previous ruling party for things they did or didn't do. As usual the Opposition party will only have to oppose everything in the time honoured tradition, no matter how good or bad it will be for us. Issues and debate won't be complicated by balance of power wielding minor parties with other points of view, no matter how legitimate.
9. Majority Government means the ruling party has a mandate.
10. A mandate means the ruling party is allowed to implement some obscure idea that nobody likes and very few people voted for, but, as it was an idea that belonged to them, they are allowed to impose it on us anyway (a bit like 40% pay rises for Pollies!).
11. One Green, no Democrats, Independents, One Nations, Tasmania Firsts and Australia Marijuana Parties means that the two major parties are allowed to completely ignore them and the 20% of people that voted for them. Apparently those people should have been smarter and voted for the major parties. Hopefully, by ignoring them for the next four years, these people might vote properly next time!
12. One Green means that even though the party lost 75% of their seats, they had an extremely successful election and are going from strength to strength. Also, it was the Democrats' fault, they should have advised their supporters to vote Green as the Democrats are in fact really Greens in disguise!
13. No Democrats means they also had a successful election and the major parties had better watch out (for what, I am unsure!) Also it was the Greens' fault, they should have advised their supporters to vote Democrat as the Greens are in fact really Democrats in disguise!
14. The remaining parties were so well disguised that nobody voted for them.
15. The next obvious step is to continue lowering the number of pollies until there are only two members of Parliament. Whoever wins gets to rule and can quite legitimately ignore the people that didn't vote for them (as usual). They can then implement their mandate to only allow one party to stand for election, which, as luck would have it, happens to be their party. Sensibly, the savings from reducing the number of pollies and parties should be redirected to the single member of Parliament (passed unanimously at a sitting of parliament). This will of course result in that member becoming an instant millionaire, in which case they could comfortably resign shortly after taking office, resulting in new elections being held on a fairly regular basis and a dramatic increase in people wanting to stand for election. This increased interest will result in a need to increase both the number of pollies and the number of parties that can participate (without a drop in remuneration, of course!) until we arrive at a comfortable, let's say, 35 seats!!
The recent reduction of representation in the Tasmanian House of Assembly offers some interesting perspectives. While some may argue there was a need to prune out dead wood, a large degree of decay remains while the fresh, vibrant growth (particularly women such as Christine Milne, Di Hollister and Lara Giddings) was discarded. Tasmania's huge debt, massive unemployment, expanding social and environmental degradation and population decline are the result of decisions made by the old political parties who, by manipulating the system, ensured personal survival at the expense of democracy and the best interests of the state.
The Tasmanian people not only have reduced representation, but also reduced intelligence in the parliament. The Greens' ability to articulate a vision for a sustainable Tasmania, was undoubtedly a threat to the old parties with their dependence upon the corporate dollar. Peg Putt, the solitary remaining Green voice, must struggle to represent not only her own constituency but also Greens statewide who no longer have a sympathetic representative with whom to discuss their issues.
The positive aspect of reduced representation is that those of Green persuasion are freed from the drama of politics to concentrate on grassroots, direct action. Whether our doctored democracy will degenerate into fascism and the politics of desperation as the economic and social fabric unravel, remains to be seen.
35 or 25? The downsizing of the Tasmanian House of Assembly has in the recent elections broken the impasse of a succession of hung parliaments. But will the change last or will it ultimately fail as the enlargement of the house in 1959 did? This poses the fundamental question of whether house size is really the problem. Or is the problem to achieve decisive legislation a result of the Hare Clark system which was designed by A.J. Clark, not for party purposes, but to give representation to small sections of public opinion? We are limited by a bicameral system with a conservative Legislative Council set up by Governor Denison to overcome the fear of an oligarchy of 'mobrule'. There is evidence to suggest a closer look at the Tasmanian system is required to provide more decisive government.
Tasmanians are known to be phlegmatic and are sceptical about their politicians. Intellectual distinctions and party doctrines mean little. They support or condemn the government of the day on bread and butter issues and vote on personalities. So, for some, downsizing means less chance to feel personally represented by the politician of their choice.