As opaque as a Bridgewater Jerry

A recent Grattan Institute report, whilst conceding Tasmania has made big improvements in its economy, has commented negatively on transparency in our political system.

In the view of many Tasmanians its government is about as opaque as a Bridgewater Jerry.  It is not time to examine whether our current political system is fit for purpose?

Does it ensure taxpayers get value for money?  We update our cars, we refurbish our homes and offices, we update our phones and IT equipment but are content to let our system of government roll along with a system of government still largely rooted in colonial era Tasmania.

Yet while we let our government system roll along in ‘free fall” politicians themselves have not been idle.  Slowly they have been building a fortress around them, that is dismantling all the checks and balances we have built into the system, to make sure it is inclusive, accountable, transparent and serves the needs of electors.

One or two houses?

Whilst agreeing with many electors and the oft repeated line of the Tasmanian Constitutional Society, that for better government we need a bigger lower house, there are some factors that tend to get overlooked in these discussions. The most obvious is that increasing the size of parliament won’t of itself guarantee better performing politicians.  More importantly the Tasmanian people haven’t forgotten the hefty pay rise MP’s took to reduce the size of the House of Assembly to twenty-five .The Tasmanian people would be angry if more MP’s were created and the budget had to find the additional money.  There are four ways the expenditure might be found

  1. An amalgamation of both houses and one election each four years on a fixed date. This would save millions obviating the need for rolling and expensive elections every few months for the Legislative Council.
  2. There are reduced support staff costs by running one admin for one ‘amalgamated house’ and abolition of the generous salary of the president of the old Legislative Council and its associated perks.
  3. A pay freeze for MPs for two years plus tying MP’s ongoing wages to the CPI, so they get the same percentage pay rise as pensioners.
  4. Streamlining and modernizing the state governorship and abolishing some of its colonial era positions. This task could be done by the current governor who is herself a distinguished academic, who could hand a report to government at the end of her tenure.

Note the expenditure savings are such it should fund other changes to the Tasmanian political system being proposed.

Electoral enrolment:

Electors would be enrolled in a consolidated form in 3 ways:

  • Normal House of Assembly (tier 1) electorate enrolment ,
  • House of Assembly (tier 2) electorate enrolment – more on this later
  • and …tier 3 local council enrolment.

So enrolment is focussed principally on who you are /where you reside as the primary consideration allocating each person three tiers of enrolment. Maintaining such a roll is admittedly a complex exercise but with modern computer systems is not insurmountable.

There would be elections on a set date, say the third Saturday in March each four years, for all of these divisions  Voting for local councils would be compulsory for physical electors and the electoral office would devise in consultation with councils a method for including votes of businesses , where local councils allow businesses/business owners discreet votes. Voting should be compulsory for all tiers of government.

We should increase the House of Assembly firstly to 6 members for each electorate, with voting as per the normal Hare Clarke method with Robson ballot rotation. Complex ministries such as health and treasury should be the only portfolio a minister holds. With smaller states there is a diseconomy of scale and the key determinant of a portfolio should its complexity, which is common to all states, regardless of population. It would give the capacity for governments to split portfolios where new trends make the portfolio workloads impossible. I want to comment briefly on the health portfolio . Public hospitals have been impacted by the perfect storm . recent influxes of population plus an existing ageing traditional Tasmanian population, many of whom where once engaged in manual work, overlain with federal government health cutbacks, plus much needed public hospital refurbishments have created an enormous crisis and work load on the health portfolio. Increased numbers of MPs in a unicameral house might allow the portfolio to be split into a health portfolio and a portfolio that just covers hospitals, this might be recombined  if and when we solve some of the seemingly intransient issues currently exhibited with public hospitals.

Amalgamating the upper and lower houses

Abolish the legislative council and substitute new tier two divisions representing the major regions of Tasmania and the major cities.(see below) Electorates would not have to be of equal population size, but there may have to be a population floor inserted. They total 15 seats and will be elected using the current legislative council voting method, including the mooted indigenous seat. Above the line voting in this tier would not be allowed.

It is hoped that tier 2 members would contain a significant number of independents allowing the government to seek consensus by discussing mooted legislation with the groups (opposition parties and independents). The enhanced House of Assembly would give regional and country Tasmania, as well as residents of the larger towns, unique and individual representation. This method should provide different voices and points of view so vital to making informed decisions.

Tier Two (ex-legislative council seats)

1.Circular head + King Island

2.Burnie City

3.Devonport City………………………{Baldock}

4.Launceston City 1 ( East)

5.Launceston City 2 ( West)

6.North East + Flinders island

7.Huon Channel + Bruny Island ……….{Truganini}

8.Central Midlands & Highlands

9.East Coast

10.Tasman Peninsula

11.Greater Hobart North

12 Greater Hobart Central………{Nipaluna or Cochrane Smith}

  1. Greater Hobart East………..{Goodwin}

14.West Coast…………………{Reece or O’Malley}

  1. An identified indigenous seat by state-wide vote of Palawa adults. (Lutruwita, perhaps?)

I tried to align the seats with the current five House of Assembly electorates, but it was a near on impossible task. Also, there are many other possibilities and combinations other than what I have proposed and greater minds than mine will no doubt come up with better configurations.

There is a slight complication in that tier 2 candidates could cross two or more of the five traditional electorates, but processes could be developed by the electoral office to overcome this by allocating each traditional electorate counting responsibility for three tier two seats.

Consideration might be given to naming new seats with indigenous names as well as of famous Tasmanians  I have put a few examples in brackets but don’t presume in any way to impose these names on anyone. First Tasmanian names would be done in consultation with the Palawa Community.

Also like the Australian senate we could have four- and eight-year terms for the tier two seats. A method of selecting who is junior and who is senior could be easily devised. I am not sure; however, eight-year terms would be popular with the electorate.

A transition strategy for current MLCs who would not serve out their full six years would also need to be devised – perhaps paying out their forfeited salary would suffice. I would expect high performing MLC’s would end up being re-elected under the new arrangements.

Tier one MHA’s who resign before elections would be replaced in the normal manner by recount. Tier two politicians would need a by-election, but as the indigenous seat is state-wide casual vacancies could  be perhaps filled on a recount.

Compensating for the loss of a House of Review

Whilst spiking the House of Assembly with regional independents should ensure governments consult more widely, lest the legislation is ultimately voted down, with the anticipated outcome we get better legislation. We do need added controls to assist the democratic process; in many cases the controls do exist but are not working as intended.

We should create a position of a State Transparency Officer probably an ex judge or law academic who has oversight and strong powers so attempts by governments to subvert  FOI requests can be referred to the Transparency Officer, who can order further disclosure. It seems governments spend inordinate amounts of time and money trying to block or stunt FOI requests.

Further strengthen the committee system/budget estimates process . Again, with some right of appeal to the transparency officer where documents are not produced by government.

Ensure there are set proportions of support staff measured perhaps by % of salary attached to each MP, with higher proportions to the premier and party leaders. This is to counter the proliferation of spin doctors. The public should not have to pay for spin doctors who are trying to put a positive spin on what is just out and out mismanagement or incompetence. We do need however, proper research assistants in the public sector attached to MP’s so political decisions are made on well-founded research as well as innovative and critical thinking.  The premier reputedly has 12 staff at a cost of around $1.6 Million and 9 ministers have 30 advisers. Value for money-electors go figure?

Government advertising should be cleared by the State Transparency Officer before expenditures are committed to ensure it is valid information dissemination and not party-political advertising disguised as information.

The State Transparency Officer should be initially appointed from interstate or overseas. They could only be dismissed by the governor.  They should develop a transparency index and report every two years to parliament, with the report being publicly available. The premier should receive the report four weeks before it is made public.

Elector plebiscites

Where an issue of significant importance or impact is introduced as legislation and it has clearly not been part of a party’s election manifesto then it ought to go to a plebiscite of electors say 40% return required for approval. Privatization ( e.g. the sale of the treasury buildings) and the transfer of public land  to private companies, changes to gun laws not signalled at election time, might be examples.

Better Candidates

The screening process for candidates by the major parties is clearly in many instances inept. Some of our ministers of the crown have been underwhelming.  Unsavoury views or events often surface long after the candidate has been elected reflecting poorly candidate selection processes. Business interests are not scrutinized enough so that potential conflicts of interest come to light well after the candidate has been serving as a minister. In addition, in recent times there is evidence to suggest the social views of many politicians are out of step with Australian society at large. It is harder to get ‘socially progressive ‘ legislation through parliaments even when there is huge support for change in the electorate.  Euthanasia and same sex  marriage are two issues that come to mind where seemingly parliaments were out of step with the electorate at large. It appears parliamentarians are generally more religious than the public at large. I note these things not necessarily as criticism but more as observation in trying to deduce reasons where MP’s are not held in the esteem they once were.

I concede it is easy for independents to turn up as star candidates like Kerryn Phelps, as unlike the major parties they need to find a minimum of thirty candidates state-wide, not always easy as the federal parliament has also a huge pull factor for ambitious politicians. Sadly, politics is not attracting young people in great numbers.

The people own democracy not political parties!

All parties should note that democracy predates political parties and at its most basic democracy is about the elector making a choice by secret ballot . The big parties do not own democracy by right and their belief in a sort of divine right of the party system to be preeminent has resulted often in a perversion of democracy. The reduction of the house of assembly to 25 was a shameless exercise in the wrongful exercise of political power. So too are long periods of proroguing of parliament, such as the scandalous six months sought by Harry Holgate in 1981 (this was reduced to three months after the then governor wisely ‘persuaded ‘Holgate to a halving of the time sought)  Long absences of parliament sitting, with the attendant scrutiny sittings provide, are not good for democracy!

In Holgate’s time the support for the major parties was around 95% nationally this has dropped to around 72%. In the recent by election in Wentworth whilst the focus was on the huge swing against the government there were swings away from labor and the greens, where the political atmospherics should have been ripe for them to gain votes. Clearly the major parties are on the nose and they need to be convinced that political reform is in their best interests instead of building fortresses of resistance.

Political transparency

Australia is continuing to slide relative to other countries on political transparency. On a state level according to the Grattan Institute’s State Orange Book 2018 Tasmania and the NT sit at the very bottom.  The premier is keen to discuss the sharp improvement in the economy noted in the report but is guarded and defensive about the lack of transparency.  The march to totalitarianism is often gradual and there seems to be an international trend away from democracy and it appears our political and personal rights are ever so gradually being eroded. Yes, international terrorism, pressure on national borders, the increased role of the private sector in delivering government business are emerging political factors which can limit the public’s right to know, but it’s a matter of balance; politicians are too fond of taking the easy route and not building in enough protections for citizens, particularly with security related legislation.

One way governments have eroded transparency is by severely reducing the funding to services like FOI, Ombudsman, public advocacy services, Integrity Commissions and so forth, opining they can choke the life out of them by a slow agonizing death of a thousand cuts. The federal government has a process called an efficiency dividend , which seems reasonable on the surface but taken to the Nth degree means eventual extinction of the service provided. Or another related strategy is what one might call the self-fulfilling prophecy strategy by reducing the funding so severely the entity cannot operate effectively and then use this as a pretext for absolute abolition.

Political Disclosure laws

Tasmania has the highest threshold at which political donations need to be disclosed; all eastern seaboard states have a $1000 threshold, but Tasmania is thirteen times that figure. The recent election was controversial in that accusations of large-scale funding to the Liberal Party were made by some political parties and some individuals. The extent of these donations will not be revealed for several months.

Measures  that ought to be adopted around donations:

  1. Near real-time on-line donations information publicly available (say 2 weeks from donation to posting)
  2. Small donations by the same donor to be aggregated
  3. Donations of $1000 and upwards to be declared.
  4. A prohibition on MP’s taking employment with donors or businesses that intersected with previous portfolio responsibilities or tendered for government business for two years after cessation of work as an MP.
  5. No political donations should be allowed from companies who buy privatised monopoly assets from the government
  6. An absolute ban on donations from developers.

MP’s on-line diaries

MPs have a full-time job serving the electors. In one sense they are employees of the voters. Hence like any employee that need to be accountable to their boss (in this instance the taxpayers of Tasmania)  To be fully accountable they need to keep on line diaries accessible to the public outlining time spent in the house, time seeing electors ( retaining privacy of the elector’s name of course), meetings with lobbyists, and any influence peddlers need to be logged in the diary.  The diary needs to structure so that the personal affairs of the MP are protected : a simple coverall like personal time can be used in a blanket sense. Everybody accepts we all must rush home at times from work as the house has been flooded, your partner has been locked out, children need to be taken to the doctor, an excruciating tooth or ulcer needs emergency attention, or the sad task or attending a funeral of a family member or relative or colleague. However overseas or interstate visits on parliamentary business need to be accounted for. Office expenditures need to be logged perhaps bi annually in the diary. Some of the expenses incurred in the federal sphere dwarf MP’s salaries and in many cases exceed one million dollars.

I wince when I hear a potential MP say I want to pursue a career in politics. That means it starts from a self -centred notion. It would be more meaningful to say I want a career in public service  or in serving the people that elected me.

Royal Commissions

The public seems to like the scrutiny of Royal Commissions ; politicians less so. The extraordinary powers of a royal commission coupled with the independence people see in the judiciary gives people confidence that the RC will get to the ‘bottom of things.’ I see the RC phenomenon more of a result of years of poor governance or insufficient regulation or enforcement of regulation. More importantly little regard is given to risk analysis in preparing legislation.

Risk management consideration in drafting legislation

The current debate on the nature and scope of development in Tasmania is an example. The Tasmanian economy was languishing, and young people were leaving Tasmania in droves. We were facing an ageing population and population stagnation. So, the current government and previous governments to a lesser extent decided encouraging investment and development and encouraging more people of working age to settle here were worthwhile strategies. What was overlooked or ignored was the risks. We are seeing signs of tourist fatigue, there is marked opposition to excessive high-rise development, to developments that conflict with the ethos of unique or wild places, perceived threats to the traditional Tasmanian lifestyle and a myriad of issues around housing and accommodation. Cashed up overseas developers, for example, know what strings to pull, what pressure points to use and this calls for even greater transparency in government. The “economic boom’ has in  overall terms befitted the state but there are downstream effects that trouble a lot of Tasmanians. Once the political wisdom was a first term government will not be torn down by electors that is no longer the case, the Newman government in Queensland is evidence of that. We need to return to good progressive government -the clear risk is if we don’t then the risk of politicians from the extremes of the spectrum taking power is increased. Malcolm Turnbull’s reforms to Senate voting were in part to subvert independents and what did we get-even loonier senators. The cautionary tale is this the major parties don’t own democracy and Turnbull’s reforms were meant to further consolidate the major parties, but it didn’t work all that well. In addition, above the line voting has given us senators from the major parties who get into parliament on a handful of votes and with little known of their abilities and predilections.

The Tasmanian Constitution Act 1934 and the Tasmanian Governor

Our Tasmanian democracy is consolidated in this act. Some changes proposed here may need changes to this act. It has served us reasonably well but it but doesn’t enshrine people’s political rights very well nor is it ‘republic’ ready. It is inevitable we will have a republic one day, it may well be a long way away, but its arrival is inevitable . Perhaps another task for Governor Warner and a panel of experts to review? In governors Underwood and Warner, we have had two fine legal minds in government house and although opening fairs and shows is important, with their consent, we should be using their expertise better.

In terms of the governorship of Tasmania a small reform would be to allow a public petition of say over 1000 signatures to the Premier of the Day to nominate who would be included in his or her considerations for the choice of governor. The Premier would not be obliged to choose any of these public offerings, but such an inclusive process would go some way to mitigating the feeling of disempowerment many electors feel and would take little effort to implement and would be in no way binding.

Reforms to the conduct of elections

The time has come where we must at least test the waters with electronic voting. We should at least conduct a pilot exercise and assess the results. Security is a problem with electronic voting, but I have my doubts as to whether a major foreign power would want to intervene in Tasmanian election. One thing that could be trialled is a lock up of electoral office staff so that pre-poll votes are counted in a locked secure area on election eve and locked down until the close of the poll with much of the tallying done. This may already be electoral office practice but again there is no reason on election day at say noon halfway through the voting day voting boxes are removed new ones installed under supervision in a lock up some staff begin counting so that by the close of the day perhaps as much as half of the people who have voted in person have had their votes counted. I think fingerprint and voice identification could also be harnessed in the elections of the near future.

Can we learn anything form the ACT?

The ACT government has responsibility for state/territory functions as well as local government functions. In terms of MPs it is therefore a much leaner model than Tasmania’s by combining two tiers of government . The ACT has divided administration into seven directorates. As both the ACT and our own state have relatively comparable populations it is certainly worth at least some examination of the plausibility of Tasmania using a similar model.

Certainly, some councils in Tasmania have exhibited farcical behaviour and students from the local high school could manage the affairs of some councils better. In extreme cases the state government has had to dissolve councils and appoint an administrator .Council amalgamations continue to get put in the too hard basket. I can see no reason why we could not have a greater Hobart Council combining four or perhaps five councils that share the river Derwent or its estuary. It appears council general managers have too much power relative to elected officials.

A recent agreement between the states and the federal government has seen guarantees about GST revenue plant a ticking time bomb as the guarantees are only for 8 or so years into the future. Then I believe, there is a huge risk Tasmania lose a huge slice of money, if the federal government of the time, reneges and does not roll over the agreement.  When states start critiques of other states the huge size of Tasmania’s administration relative to other states will be used against. Queensland has a unicameral system for example and one council for greater Brisbane with a population of just over two million people, whereas Tasmania manages 21 councils for a total state population of around six hundred thousand people .Western Australia will say it is not dependant on poker machines for its revenues, the ACT can say it has amalgamated its two tiers of government.

The fourth estate

A free and vibrant media is essential to a healthy democracy. In Tasmania we have a shadow over provincial newspapers since the amalgamation of Fairfax and the Nine Network. Southern Cross news has decimated its Tasmania specific news coverage. To its eternal shame sections of the liberal party and the media have mounted a sustained attack on the ABC , which along with the Mercury newspaper provides most coverage of  Tasmanian politics. Although the Mercury has its critics, it is one of the less partisan of the News Limited stable, and its loss would be a blow. It also knows Tasmanians are too canny to swallow some of the piffle that is served up in the Daily Telegraph. Prominent Tasmanian liberal party personnel (and it is still unclear to me whether the current premier was part of the lynch mob) where to the forefront of a recent liberal party federal council  decision to support privatisation of the ABC, except ,as the motion put it, ‘for services into regional areas that are not commercially viable.’

Yet the media’s role sometimes in coverage of politics hardly covers itself in glory. The arrogance of some radio and TV personalities and their partisan campaigns have contributed to much recent political instability.  A rolling twenty-four-hour coverage of politics also  forces governments into sloppy decisions and works against considered and well-reasoned policy. I have watched several leadership spills nationally and it is sickening to see the reporters almost salivating with excitement, a sort of fourth estate version of beatlemania!  So formidable is spotlight of the twenty-four-news cycle that politician is reduced to slogans by media managers because any slip of the tongue is elevated and blown up by the media instantly that slip is made.  We are in the instant gratification era stoked by  a media that often when it gets a scent of blood is like a rolling maul of frenzy.


The privatization of the ABC is part of a push by the shadowy far right think tank the IPA to see its platform get adopted by the Liberal party. Many key Liberal party federal ministers and at least one prominent Tasmanian backbencher are IPA members. IPA policy would see business assume the role of government and many of the checks and balances in the political system removed. As they do not, as far as I know, publish publicly membership lists I am unaware of whether any State government politicians who are IPA members. If there are some the public has a right to know, because in my view some of their policies, particularly relating to what they term as small government would restrict the very parts of government that serve to promote transparency and the public’s right to know. Whilst membership of the IPA lists is not readily available (apart from office bearers) its policies are public.

Where to from here?

I worked in Hobart for a decade as a builder’s labourer. I worked on the then Australian Government Centre and the Reserve Bank, to name a couple of sites. I know how many jobs  a major building project creates and the confidence it gives to a local economy. It was at a time there was a huge rift in the BLF between the Victorians and their allies under Norm Gallagher and the NSW BLF under Jack Munday.  It centred around a wages and conditions focus versus green bans focus.  In a sense that tension exits today but is played out in society at large. The difference today is that major buildings are largely driven by a class of developers that are sophisticated and skilled at getting their way. They are attracted by a government slogan that trumpets “open for business”.  Such an open-ended slogan promotes a view the government will do all it can to assist developers. The question is then how much this assistance creates government secrecy and tramples over people’s rights. Also, is it reasonable that if you buy a house in 1978 can you can have an expectation that your views and surrounding developments in 2018 will remain the same.? This is where government must exercise balance and judgement. Open for business should not mean the bulldozer is predominant and a wall of secrecy is immediately put up. Government is meant to facilitate an orderly society where sensible and sensitive development can go forward, where people can feel justice is served even if the outcome is not to their liking, rather than open slather. It is worth remembering that Eric Reece whose hydroelectric industrialization and the promotion  of a ground-breaking legal casino were decisions that took Tasmania forward, also wanted to pull down the Salamanca warehouses. The lesson here is a development decision can have good or bad consequences for the future.  In addition, only in later years long after I ceased work in the building industry did learn the AGC site at 118 Collins street was facilitated by the demolition of a Henry Hunter designed building.

What I have written is suggesting some broad areas for reform. Critiques, especially by politicians will undoubtedly focus on minutiae and will be easily be able to point out impracticalities. Those politicians would be conforming to the negative stereotypes the public has allocated to them. These are the people who promote themselves at election time as “can do” people but when it comes to genuine reform trot out well worn ‘can’t do’ phrases!

A lot of the checks and balances that promote or assist transparency are already there they are just not working as intended often by defunding , passive/active resistance by politicians and the executive arm of government by virtue of the power dynamics involved literally bullying public officials into submission. In other words, it’s no good having guards on the henhouse if the fox is paying for the guards.

MP’s need to grasp that either treading water or not making urgent reforms that make our system of government more inclusive, transparent and accountable will either lead to the slow death knell for major traditional parties or even worse take us down the path to totalitarianism.

Greg Cure has a self-confessed infatuation for Tasmania He is proud of his West Coast origins , having a father from Waratah ; a mother from Strahan. His maternal grand-father was a Huon Piner.  He has worked extensively in the mining and building industry and had a successful career as a senior strategic manager in the Australian Government Educated at the University of Tasmania in politics and classics he was a member of the Student Council and was for a time active in student politics.  He was also once on the Tasmanian executive committee of the now defunct BLF. He has toured extensively in China and spent some years teaching in Nanjing. He is the author of “Where did all the good times go” an examination of the 1960’s R&B musical revolution in the UK.. He has contributed articles to magazines in China. He has a great affection for the city of Nanjing, its history and its people. Happily, retired, among a plethora of interests, he is a keen lover of sport, horse racing, the politics, of disarmament, gardening, rock music and ancient history