Tiny Parliament Leaves Tasmania Short Staffed


Following the Tasmanian election on Saturday, at which no one party won an outright majority, a coalition government between one of the state’s major parties and the Greens is now essential if the state is to be governed by a fully functioning ministry.

With its previous complement of 14 members (minus one to fill the role of Speaker), the Labor Party was barely able to form a viable ministry.

For example, when a minister left office, it was difficult to find someone with the talent and/or experience to take his or her place. This made that government even less reluctant than most to sack incompetent, disgraced or embarrassing ministers.

On top of this, there was virtually no backbench to keep ministers focused on shifts in community opinion or shifts away from party policy.

The Government had to turn to Upper House members to share the workload, but, under the archaic rules of Tasmania’s Upper House, these particular MPs experience relatively little scrutiny or electoral accountability compared to their colleagues in the Lower House.

Upper House question time is a relaxed affair. It usually goes so completely unnoticed by the outside world that Upper House ministers have been invited to Lower House question time instead. Elections for the Upper House seats also slip by unnoticed. The chamber is never dissolved and never faces a general election, instead electing its members through a system of annual, rotating and highly localised electorate-by-electorate polls.

Another characteristic of the Tasmanian Upper House is that most of its members are not aligned to political parties (currently there are only three Labor Upper House MPs and one Liberal), which also limits the Chamber’s usefulness as a source of ministerial talent.

My insight into the government’s problems first came in my role as a gay rights lobbyist. Too often, ministers, overloaded with too many portfolios and huge departments, would be so tired that they were in danger of falling off their chair, or too distracted to sit still in it.

Excessive work demands meant that important decisions were either made in a rush or inordinately delayed. Inevitably many major decisions fell to unelected advisers or senior public servants who would typically opt for the safest course in the absence of guidance from their minister.

Other problems caused by this overload included the sidelining of small — but still important — portfolios such as social inclusion or women’s issues. Even more seriously, it has led to potential conflict between portfolios — for example the minister for agriculture, energy and resources should not be in charge of planning as has been the case in recent years.

Given a Government with 14 Lower House members faced the above problems, I have no doubt that it is impossible for the state to be governed by the 10 members that each of the major parties can expect to have when the state election result is finalised.

One solution would be to restore Parliament to a viable size.

In 1998 the Labor and Liberal parties collaborated to reduce the number of seats in the Lower House from 35 to 25, ostensibly to reduce costs, but actually to squeeze out the Greens.

Neither goal was achieved. The cost of high-paid ministerial minders has spiralled and the Greens are now more influential than ever.

Meanwhile the Tasmanian Government continues to look more like a local council than the administration of an entire island society, inspiring some commentators, including Greg Barns, to revive the idea of amalgamating Tasmania and Victoria — an idea many Tasmanians, including myself, find absolutely abhorrent.

In the name of better government, it’s time to restore to Tasmania a parliament large enough to do the state justice.

But even if there is the political will to do this, it will take time. Until then, the only answer for the problems I’ve outlined is for one of the major parties to form a coalition with the Greens, bringing their five members into ministerial contention.

Those powerful interests that have previously opposed any Green influence on Tasmanian economic, environmental and social policy will probably respond by declaring the Greens too radical or irresponsible to hold government posts. But surely the best way to foster responsibility and moderation among the Greens is to bring them into decision-making, not exclude them from it.

Liberal leader Will Hodgman ruled out giving Greens cabinet posts before the election, but seems to have softened his stance now that there seems to be a good chance of a Liberal government. Labor leader David Bartlett has not softened his opposition to an agreement with the Greens — I assume because he expects a Liberal-Green agreement to fall apart and that he will benefit from this.

Even Greens leader Nick McKim is coy about the issue, presumably because he wants to allay lingering fears in the electorate about the Greens having too much influence.

But the issue of a coalition government goes beyond the interests of political leaders and their parties. It is in the best interests of all Tasmanians to have a government that is large and talented enough to allow ministers to make informed, considered and accountable decisions.

In the current circumstances that can only happen if a major party and the Greens form a coalition government.

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