The Need to Increase Tasmanian Parliamentary Numbers

The idea to diminish the number of politicians in the Tasmanian Parliament came about through the efforts of Liberal Premier, Ray Groom and implemented by Premier Tony Rundle who succeeded him.  It was in November 1993 that Ray Groom raised the parliamentary wage by a whopping 40 per cent.  This did not go down well with the electorate; this I remember very well. To off-set the bad publicity, what better way to win back a measure of approval than to cut back the number of politicians?  After all, are we not over governed?  Certainly on the face of it, it may appear – but are we really?  Perhaps we are indeed over governed, but not in the way most would understand it.

There is a popular cry that, “Tasmania is over governed”.  We have three tiers of government, Federal with its two Houses, State with its two Houses and twenty nine local municipalities. That does seem a lot for a State of 500,000 residents.  The Founding Fathers of our nation, aware of the insidious nature of man to acquire power, in their wisdom before federation, decided on splitting the responsibilities of government between the Federal Government and State Governments, as outlined in the National Constitution.  It was not long before there were complaints that the federal government was eroding State’s responsibility.  Our one-time Premier Edmund Dwyer-Gray (1939) expressed concern way back in 1931 of the encroaching powers of Canberra against the States and he took up the cry of “Justice for Tasmania and secession”. During WWII, Joseph (Joe) Darling of our Legislation Council (in my opinion probably Tasmania’s greatest politician) led and eventually won a nation-wide campaign to stop the Federal Government’s takeover of many State powers in an effort, so they said, to fight the war.  Joe was wise enough to know, once taken they will never be given back, even though the Federal Attorney-General Herbert Evatt guaranteed that after the war, those responsibilities taken away would indeed be returned.  Well, pigs may fly.  Even in our time, during the Franklin below Gordon Dam controversy there was a State-rights fight under Premier Robin Gray, who went as far as to threaten, like Dwyer-Gray, secession and even commissioned a feast ability study, a copy of which I have in my files.

It was good that our founding fathers split power, to break it down and to disperse it.  Municipal government of course is a State responsibility, although Tasmania had a number of local governments existing under the authority of colonial governments before federation.  Hence the three-tier system of government. To some, even this is too many layers, although the United States has a four-tier system, the City (or town), the County, the State and Federal. Then there are those who wish to centralise power, getting rid of State Governments altogether (which is almost impossible because it would need a referendum to agree) and just have regional government, say for Tasmania three, north, south, north west, and most of the power centralised in Canberra.  Heaven forbid! Then there are those who believe Tasmania should do away with its State independence and be governed from Victoria.  Again, heaven forbid!

There is then, the conception that Tasmania is over governed – too many tiers of government and too many politicians.  One way to stop this is to amalgamate municipalities and to cut back on the number of State politicians, which we saw happen in 1998.  It was a popular move and received the backing of the electorate. Now, however, we are looking at its reversal.

On the surface of course it does seem terrific. We have fewer politicians which is now costing us a lot less financially. It would be interesting to know much it all cost in 1998 and compare costs up for 2019.  I would suggest we are not really any better off.  Governments have a rule of increasing in size in various way, thus I would submit running government would be even more expensive now.  It is just like council amalgamations (often forced) with the carrot being that resources can be shared, there will be fewer aldermen and as a result rates will decline.  This has never happened of course.  It is a fervie. Rates don’t go down.

Tasmania in my opinion is not over governed, at least not in the way people understand that it is. The Lower House now has 25 members, down from 35, while the Upper House has 15, down from 19. From a small pool of thirteen which make up the current government, nine actually have portfolios of which there are thirty three. Being Premier is a responsible job in itself, but Mr Hodgman has four other besides this position.  Our Attorney-General, Elise Archer, who is very competent, has six, Guy Burnett four, Michael Ferguson five and so on. Perhaps there are too many portfolios. Regardless, how anyone can handle such responsibilities is beyond me and one must question, something which was recently pointed out to me and not contained in my written submission, can such awesome power transfer into authoritarism? Like our founding fathers, who broke up power, we should likewise break down the number of portfolios each minister can have.  This means of course increasing the number of representatives or cutting back the number of portfolios. Now there may be the claim that a government could win 15 and more seats.  No doubt if this happened it would spread the load, but this is unlikely and the worse thing for good government is a landslide. To handle such a load, must be stressful, demanding and almost impossible to devote adequate attention and time to every separate portfolio.  The job load would be for better government if shared around to others, as long as that person is competent and experienced enough.  Sharing such a large number of portfolios between small numbers could also see the situation where those who have a portfolio could be taking on a responsibility that they are just not prepared to accept.

The other aspect for the increase of numbers will be to represent the electorate more fully.  Here in Tasmania, many electorates not only know who their representative is, many actually have met them or know them quite well and are able to seek out their services for assistance. On the mainland, the electorates are so large, that most if they know who their representative is, would hardly have an opportunity to meet them on a personal basis (maybe election time is an exception) let alone know them.  Here in Tasmania twenty five members works out (approximately) one House of Assembly representative for every 20,000 people, but increasing it to 35, the ratio darts down to one to every 14,000 people.  This low ratio i.e. representative to the electorate can only be of benefit to the voter. This gives him or her far greater opportunity to get to know their representative rather than being just one person in a big cog wheel. Of course, the same can be said of the Legislative Council.  Nonetheless it is the Lower House Member which most electorate know more than say the Upper House Member, while not diminishing the importance of the Upper Chamber. More numbers means better representation to the electorate and while it may appear correct that we should have less numbers on the belief we are over governed, it can actually work against good government. The further away from the individual that government goes, the less chance that person has in influencing their members and indeed, the government – and isn’t this what it is all about…people representation?  Government of the people, for the people? The same can be said about council amalgamation.  It is an attractive concept, but the further away the seat of government gets from where the people live, the less say and influence the electorate have on how they are governed.

But we are over-governed, but not in the way popularly thought.  I am now in my twilight years and since a boy, through youth-hood, young man hood and middle age I have seen the freedom of society and of the individual reduce dramatically even to the extent it is like living in an occupied country.  How can this be so?  Simply, there is too much government legislation, too many boards, too many commissions, too many unelected public CEOs, too much outside influences which have increased government power enormously and when government power increases the freedom of the people decreases.  We have seen now on the mainland efforts to curb the freedom of the media. One of the most insidious pieces of legislation implemented by the Tasmania Parliament is section 17 of the Anti-Discrimination Act of 1998, and amended by Minister Brian Wightman’s bill of 2012 and commenced 1 January 2013. I bring Section 17 up as an example of governments being in our faces. Governments and politicians should be there protecting the people’s freedom, rather than taking it away. Such legislation is always opened to interpretation and abuse. In fact the actual amendment is dreadfully worded.  How it passed the Upper House, I don’t know. A few decades back it would have been sent back or even rejected.

I submit that low number of representatives is detrimental to the people in receiving good government.  It is also detrimental to those in government in being able to provide the best of government possible and that low numbers, regardless of the ability of some our ministers to handle such awesome responsibilities, can be just too much for one person to shoulder. Less numbers cuts down on the ratio of representative to the electorate, but higher numbers will obviously increase that number, which can only be of benefit to the people.  And government is about serving the people to its best ability. Yes, it will cost more in wages and expenses, but better government will result.  Cutting down on costs can be achieved in other ways, perhaps cutting back on the number of portfolios and their departments.

However, I also submit that we are indeed over-governed, but in a way in that we no longer a free people, over burdened by government interference and domination of our lives.  Born in the late 40s I can compare what was, to what is and the contrast is enormous.  This trend of curbing and controlling the beliefs, the thoughts, the opinions, the movements and the actions of the people is only increasing and people are seeing governments as the problem.  Surely this is not what our Founding Fathers intended when they broke up power and had it shared, knowing the human heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked, who can know it? (Jeremiah 17:9).