THE introduction of weakened, cut-price democracy in Tasmania nearly 20 years ago has left the State with seriously diminished government.
The failure of political leadership to honour a tripartite promise to reverse the ill-conceived decision to slash the size of Parliament has short-changed Tasmania democratically and administratively.
It may seem contradictory but the Liberals will probably remain in office after the election even if, as appears likely, they fail to win the poll.
If the consistent pattern of opinion polls is to be believed, the election due by March will leave the Liberals with more seats than Labor, although short of an absolute majority. Possession is nine-tenths of the law and — assuming Labor and the Greens decline to repeat their ill-fated experiment in power-sharing — the Liberals are likely to retain their ministerial offices and limousines even if they fail to comprehensively win the election.
But a minority government of, say, 12 would be a toy-town administration with barely enough Members to form a ministry in the down-sized 25-seat House, a very limited and shallow talent pool, and next to no backbench to supervise and support overloaded ministers.
The complexity of 21st-century politics and government has put added pressure on ministers who, at the same time, have had to accept extra responsibilities because of the minimised Cabinet of nine (effectively only eight since Vanessa Goodwin stepped aside from public life because of illness).
The shortage of “talent” to fill ministerial vacancies is demonstrated by the fact that Goodwin’s position in Cabinet remained vacant six months after she was hospitalised with brain tumours.
Some ministers had to deal with multiple major portfolios — Jeremy Rockliff, for example, is not only Deputy Premier, Minister for Education and Training, but also has Primary Industries and Water, and Racing.
It was understandable that Matthew Groom decided to call it quits after having been overloaded with an unreasonably heavy ministerial workload — responsible for the politically highly-charged Energy the Environment and Parks, and State Growth portfolios, and for the past six months the added responsibility of assuming Goodwin’s legally and constitutionally important Attorney-General and Justice ministries.
The difficulty for overburdened ministers to give adequate attention to all portfolios has been obvious, only made even greater with Groom’s decision to quit politics.
Then there is the issue of competitive federalism. With the GST under review nationally, and Tasmania being ridiculed as mendicant and heavily subsidised by more populous and resource-rich states such as Western Australia, there has never been a more critical time for Tasmanian ministers to have the strength, time and commitment to be able to drive a compelling case for maintaining a fair and adequate share of national revenue.
While the Cabinet is small relative to its responsibilities, its size in proportion to the gutted House of Assembly means the Government’s ministerial executive will always prevail, with next to no scrutiny from the backbench or parliamentary committees.
Indeed, the only check on executive over-reach is the primarily independent Legislative Council which has jettisoned Hodgman Government legislation six times — notably rejecting the attempt to water down anti-discrimination legislation, and balking at attempts to introduce mandatory sentencing. It will also be no surprise if the Legislative Council blocks the Government’s attempt at a hostile takeover of TasWater from local government and gives the Government a torrid time over poker machines.
The Liberal and Labor parties have both backed away from the promise made in writing by their then leaders in 2010 to restore the size of the House of Assembly to the 35 members it had before the conspiracy between the two parties in 1998 to gut the Parliament for nefarious and cynical partisan reasons of self interest.
That plot — ostensibly to save money, but in reality aimed at getting rid of the Greens — backfired badly on both counts.
The cost of doing politics increased with elected MPs being replaced by battalions of unelected staffers and advisers. And the Greens continue to defy predictions of their demise, and in 2010 even took ministerial positions for the first time in a power-sharing government with Labor.
If voting at the next State election follows the pattern suggested by opinion polls, neither major party would win enough seats to form a majority government. Labor should make up some of the ground it lost in the 2014 electoral drubbing. But the Liberals cannot expect to repeat the 2014 landslide win which ended its 16 years in the political wilderness when the electorate expressed its disapproval at the term of untidy Labor rule which had seen four premiers and a period of “power-sharing” minority government which finished with a falling out between Labor and the first-ever Green ministers.
With the Labor Opposition now looking competitive under a popular new leader whose polling has overtaken the Premier’s, the Hodgman Government has been showing signs of feeling nervous and under pressure.
The danger for the Government is not that Labor will win the election, but that the Liberals will lose their majority. With no enthusiasm for repeating the power-sharing experiment any time soon, the election outcome could be a minority Liberal Government relying on the Green cross-bench to keep it in office without any formal agreement, much as happened during the Rundle Liberal Government between 1996-98.
All sides of politics have acknowledged the decision in 1998 to slash Parliament to its present dysfunctional size was short-sighted.
Inevitably, the Parliament will be restored eventually to its previous size. Political scientist Professor Richard Herr, a strong advocate of a larger Parliament, notes that the most recent refurbishment of the House of Assembly chamber provides for the expansion back to 35 Members.
Sadly, while the present leadership of both the Liberals and Labor claim to support a return to the pre-1998 size, both say it is “not a priority.” Only the Greens have advocated for a return to previous numbers as a matter of importance.
With politicians generally not well respected or trusted, any decision to increase the size of Parliament will need to have cross-party support and will demand bipartisan political courage.
Tasmania needs to return to a Parliament large enough to provide a critical mass of sufficient breadth and depth to sustain both strong government and a forensic opposition.
Only then will Tasmania see the development of progressive policies which the electorate demands — overseen by a parliamentary system which ensures accountability on the part of that strong executive,
*Wayne Crawford is a Walkley Award-winning political journalist and former Associate Editor of the Mercury. First published in the Mercury, Wednesday, September 27, 2017.
• John Lawrence in Comments: Shouldn’t the discussion question why there are so many ministries in the first place? At one stage of the Hodgman government the Department of State Growth with one department head was scattered amongst six ministers. Infrastucture went to Hidding, Energy to Groom, Resources to Harriss, Tourism to Hodgman, Arts to Goodwin, Ferguson picked up IT. Ferguson is Health Minister but IT’s budget is allocated to both State Growth and DPAC. So Ferguson has three department heads. Sometimes budget Output Groups are allocated between more than one minister. One minister might get one line item, another may go elsewhere …