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Thursday, 18 November 1993
Page: 3197

Senator CHAMARETTE (8.10 p.m.) —I thank the Senate for agreeing to allow debate on this motion as part of general business. Due to the pressure on the program, which I recognise, I plan to speak for 10 minutes initially and exercise a right of reply of five minutes after the contributions of any other speakers. I move:

That the Senate recognises, and in this resolution declares, that all Australian governments should adhere to their international obligations on democratic electoral procedures and that the Tasmanian Government should respect the current process for election for the House of Assembly and, in line with accepted democratic principles, stop the precipitate action of changing the electoral system without consulting the electors of Tasmania.

The reason for presenting this motion to the Senate today—as my colleagues know, I wished it to be debated as a matter of urgency—is that today the members of the Tasmanian parliament has been passing laws which will change the representation in the Tasmanian parliament without having consulted the electors who elected those members.

  I raised this as a matter of urgency and I have moved this motion today to highlight the actions of the Tasmanian Liberal government to change the number of members of both houses of the Tasmanian parliament with only a week's notice of its intention and with no consultation with the electors of Tasmania.

  The Liberal government's proposal is to reduce the number of members of the House of Assembly from 35 to 30. I am not here to question the ability of that state government to make the changes, but I do question the opportunistic and conniving manner in which the government has moved to make the changes.

  Surely it must be a principle of any democratic system that there should be an opportunity for outside scrutiny prior to making fundamental changes to the electoral system. The Premier of Tasmania has seen fit to allow only one week of public debate, without the release of the legislation, before moving swiftly to legislate the matter.

  By linking the reduction in the number of members of parliament with a 40 per cent increase in the salary of members, Premier Groom has deflected public attention away from the reduction in members to this substantial increase in salaries. On a superficial level, it is far simpler for the public to see the advantage in reducing the number of parliamentarians than it is to see the need for a 40 per cent increase in income.

  The proposal to reduce the number of members is an abandonment of changes made to the system of election in 1958. These changes were made to stop the instability caused by having only 30 members between 1906 and 1958. All expert advice then was that, unless the House of Assembly had an unequal number of members, and therefore the capacity for a majority, the instability would continue.

  In 1984, the then Liberal premier, Robin Gray, accepted the advice of the Ogilvie report into proposals to reduce the number of members of parliament. That is still the advice to this day. The Ogilvie report also pointed to the difficulty of fulfilling all the obligations of the Westminster system of government with a house reduced to a government of 16 members and an official opposition with, therefore, no more than 14. The Ogilvie report stated this in its advice to the premier:

It is our opinion that it would not be in the best interests of the State of Tasmania for a reduction of the number of Members of parliament to be included among the measures to be taken to economise in the cost of the Government of the State.

I must add that my main reason for being involved is that various members of this parliament have been approached by members of the Greens in Tasmania to ask us to speak out on their behalf and to challenge throughout Australia the undercutting of the principles of democracy that is taking place through this action.

  An editorial in the Australian of Wednesday, 17 November 1993 states:

  THE overhaul of Tasmania's electoral system announced last week by the Premier, Mr Groom, would substantially change the way the State's voters elect their governments. The balance of power between parties that has developed over the past 10 years would be altered, chiefly by reducing the ability of minority parties, such as the Greens, to win seats in Parliament.

I make no apology for the fact that my motivation is to speak out on behalf of minority parties, including the Greens, and the people who have elected green members of parliament throughout Australia.

  The Hare-Clark system has been a very fair system. It is very regrettable that a state government can simply legislate to alter its democratic representation. We are fortunate to have proportional representation in this chamber. I believe that, in that way, the community is reflected not simply by a majority of, for example, 51 per cent but by a percentage that reflects the support in the community.

  I remind my colleagues in the Senate that it is perfectly accurate that 2.6 per cent of this Senate are Greens because 2.9 per cent of people around Australia voted for the Greens. It is also appropriate to remind the Senate that the Liberal and coalition members have an increased proportional place in this chamber because of proportional representation. It is very important to democracy that we extend the electoral systems of this country so that the community is adequately represented here.

  I draw the Senate's attention to the way in which this is impacting on Tasmania and the Greens, because I believe that that is my particular voice here. I hope and assume that other senators in this chamber are also concerned about the state of democracy in Tasmania. They may well have different views from mine, but I urge them to consider the impact on both the representation in that state and its effect if it were repeated in other parliaments of this country.

  A Tasmanian Greens press release states:

.  This is the most fundamental change to The Constitution ever undertaken without consulting the people of Tasmania.

.  The Premier has said that there is no need for consultation on changes to the electoral system of the state.

.  No one properly understands the ramifications of these far reaching changes, not the Premier, not the opposition, not the political commentators nor the Chief Electoral Officer.

.  Every expert, consultant, political scientist, commentator and journalist has condemned the changes.

.  The changes have been undertaken with absolutely no community consultation and not a single expert is supporting the Government's position.

.  Every report ever commissioned on reducing the number of seats in the House to 30 has recommended against it.

.  In 1984 the Ogilvie report commissioned by the then Premier Robin Gray, recommended against the changes. Robin Gray fully supported the recommendations.

.  The changes to the Constitution fundamentally change the basic tenets of Parliament and the Westminster system of government. Unlike every other Parliament in the country, the most powerful position in the Parliament, the Speaker, will no longer be required to have the support of the Parliament. Only around 25% of the elected members will be required to elect a speaker. In effect the Speaker will be elected by the executive.

.  One individual member in the Parliament, the member elected as Speaker, will exercise the undemocratic power of two votes on the floor of the House. No where else in Australia does any member have the ability to exercise two votes. This abuses the principle of one vote—one value, and in most normal circumstances will give this member the power to block or pass all legislation. Electors' votes directed to the candidate chosen as Speaker will be worth double that of every other citizen's vote in the state.

  On the current Parliament of 35, the Liberals with 54% of the vote could be unseated from government with a swing as small as 4%. On the proposed Parliament of 30, the Liberals could survive a swing over 15% and still get a second bite at the cherry by triggering the deadlock breaking mechanism.

  The deadlock breaking count back to determine which alignment receives the deadlock breaking vote, excludes exhausted votes cast to parties included in the final count. For example, if the Greens received 30% of the vote and as can be expected most of those people voted 1-6 for Green candidates, then those votes are excluded from the final vote to allocate the deadlock breaking vote. Therefore the deadlock breaking count could be determined by 35% of the voters.

  The changes themselves will dramatically increase the chance of deadlocks. Between 1948 and 1958 in a 30 seat house, every Parliament was deadlocked. Since the introduction of a 35 member House in 1958 specifically to overcome this problem, no Parliament has ever been deadlocked. A total of 6 elections have been deadlocked between 1906 and 1958.

I illustrate these problems because I believe that, although the principles are specific at this time to Tasmania, they do apply to the state of democracy in this country. The people of this country are increasingly disillusioned by a political system which does not reflect the variety and diversity of views within the community. I believe that proportional representation is the way forward. I understand that Senator Bell may well be speaking to a fairer system that could apply. I come from Western Australia, where the government has the numbers in both the lower house and the upper house. This means that there is no ability to have a house of review where people can see that they are not getting a full and proper say. The people of Western Australia are very relieved that we have a Senate where that diversity of voices can be reflected, that there is no single group within the Senate that can determine the vote and that therefore this does allow a greater community voice to be heard.

  We are in a transition from a two-party political system to a multi-party system. We are in a move towards consensus democracy. In order to achieve consensus, we must protect our parliament from the fear ridden attempts to keep out the representatives of minority members of our community. I urge the Senate to consider deeply the impact of what is happening and to support the motion which I have moved in an attempt to prevent the utterly undesirable situation currently going on in Tasmania.

  The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Calvert)—Before I call the next speaker, I inform the Senate of arrangements that have been made. The debate will run for 45 minutes. There will be three speakers from three different parties. The government, the opposition and the Democrats will have 10 minutes each and Senator Chamarette will have five minutes to reply. It is my intention now to call Senator Sherry for the government.