“It is harder to get people to think themselves into a new way of acting than it is to get them to act into a new way of thinking.” I forget who said that but the anti-smoking lobby knows this very well: trying to convince people that smoking is bad for you doesn’t work nearly as well as putting up “No Smoking” signs that then help people think twice about why they should continue smoking.
I believe this is the key to start genuine reform of the Tasmanian body politic. In other words, not to try and convince people to change their minds about issues directly, but to convince them that the old ways aren’t working and to set up new procedures that are more likely to make for the smooth running of parliament. Then maybe people will start changing how they think about issues. For example, as Margaret Reynolds suggested at a recent power sharing forum, simply changing the seating arrangements in parliament encourages debate and dialogue, whereas two sides facing each other encourages the old game of confrontation and one-upmanship.
No doubt the biggest obstacle to power-sharing is the huge philosophical divide between the two major parties and the Greens. One side sees economic development as most important, which means that the environment is simply a resource to be exploited for supporting extractive industries. The other side sees social and environmental factors as more important, the environment needing to be treated sustainably because it is a working organised system that breaks down if interfered with too drastically. How two such opposing world views can co-exist, let alone become reconciled, in the one cabinet is an interesting question that must be giving the Liberals much entertainment at present. Perhaps the best way forward at this stage is not to dwell too much on the divide itself, as to get parliamentarians to work towards structures that would get them behaving differently. Then, perhaps, ideas will change. For an example of how not to do it, take Lennon’s cutting of the number of sitting days. It automatically stifled debate and handed more power to caucus. In the short time then available, parliamentary debate became a matter of belting the other side with slogans and insults.
For this parliament to work, then, it will have to reform itself in ways that will encourage people to act cooperatively and to share power, if it is to deliver the outcomes that most Tasmanians want. Structural changes that would help in getting politicians to change their way of acting would include increasing the size of parliament back to 35, increasing the sitting days to allow for more constructive debate and consultation, capping party donations by both individuals and businesses to minimise undue influence on politicians’ behaviour, changing the terms of reference and legislation that gives Forestry Tasmania its current free reign, removing tax incentives for plantations (admittedly not entirely a state matter), taking the planning and development legislation out of the hands of bureaucrats and back to independent expert panels with provision for wide public input, sacking the expensive minders and bureaucrats who feed self-serving advice to over-committed ministers and handing their role back to an independent public service.
This is not an extraordinary or unreasonable list, except that it means undoing what Labor and Liberal governments have assiduously put in place over the last twenty odd years. It seems to me that this is the issue that needs addressing urgently. The good news is that some at least of these procedures are already agreed as being necessary. Parliament should first get on with those procedural matters that can be changed as a matter of urgency, rather than address contentious substantive issues prematurely. To do the latter will only repeat the tired old cycle of one-upmanship.
Unfortunately the Labor-Green arrangement is tuned to work the wrong way. A three party electorate needs a three party system whereas the present arrangement fits the third party, the Greens, into the Procrustean bed of the old two party system, making at least two of the Greens de facto members of the Labor party on most matters. They are more likely therefore to act as Labor members – not that they will necessarily, but as things are presently structured, they will be encouraged to do so. McKim and O’Connor will be under pressure to vote with the government on issues that the other three Greens may well oppose and accordingly vote with the Liberals. The fact that the two Greens in government are in a personal relationship probably adds to the danger of ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ Greens behaving in different ways. This could not only bring the government down, but shatter the Greens as a united party. In short, the existing two-party template is itself a potential source of instability and needs to be altered. How to do that should thus be a major focus of attention.
If this parliament does go full term, and through structural change and cooperative power-sharing delivers even some of those outcomes that people want, such as a genuinely clean and green Tasmania supported by sustainable industries, it will change the face of politics. It would be a living demonstration that minority government and power-sharing can work and that it can produce much better governance than the old two-party adversarial system. The Greens party will be accepted into mainstream governance, with policies on social justice and the environment that may force the major parties more into line with European mainstream politics.
In matters of carbon emissions and environmental policy generally, most European parliaments, including Britain’s, are far more advanced than the Federal and State parliaments. It is significant that parliaments in other states and in Britain are heading towards minority governments. This alone should put pressure on politicians to work out ways of handling that situation, because in it the old adversarial game just will not work. Tasmania is thus in a good position to give other parliaments a strong lead. This is something that should appeal to the egos of the lead players, rather than playing and often losing the old testosterone driven games.
If our parliament falls apart, however, it will probably fuel a return to strong majority government – in this case, the Liberals would surely scoop the pool in the first instance – and take us back to a replay of the last twenty years of corruption and environmental devastation.