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Thursday, 18 November 1993
Page: 3200

Senator SHERRY (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Primary Industries and Energy) (8.23 p.m.) —The government certainly shares the concerns outlined by Senator Chamarette. I intend in this debate to touch briefly on the current position as it exists in Tasmania and the changes that have been proposed—I have to say without any discussion or public comment. Even now those changes are in the process of being amended in ways that not even the premier, who has proposed these changes, appears to understand. Then I will deal with some of the reasons why I believe this approach has been taken by the current Liberal government in Tasmania.

  I want to touch on the points in the motion relating to international obligations and what is meant by consulting the electors of Tasmania. The legislation, which has been introduced to reduce the size of the House of Assembly in Tasmania from 35 to 30, was announced last week, together with a decision by the government to increase MPs salaries by 40 per cent to a new base salary of $65,230. Again, although it is a side issue, it is certainly a related issue because the issue of MPs salaries has not been put to any independent tribunal. It was decided upon by the caucus of government members. Interestingly, Premier Groom—I actually believe him—did not appear to know what he was going to end up with. On closer scrutiny by the media it was pointed out to him that he was going to be the third highest paid politician in Australia. He suddenly decided that he would reduce his own pay. But that is what you get when you adopt policy on the run.

   Premier Groom has said he will also negotiate with the Legislative Council to reduce the size of the council from 19 to 15 members. We do not know what that means. There is no guarantee of that outcome. The constitutional amendment bill which is now before the House of Assembly will apply only to that house; it does not apply to the Legislative Council in terms of the reduction in members.

  The government has justified the reduction in the size of the two houses of the parliament for a number of reasons. It says it honours its commitment to smaller government and reform. It says it completes the work of the select committee on parliamentary reform—interestingly before it is due to report, which I think is a fairly amazing claim. It will increase the productivity of MPs. The fourth reason given is that it is consistent with public sector and private approaches to pay rises; that is, slash public sector and private payroll numbers and increase the pay of those left. That is an interesting concept but certainly I have not seen too many increases in pay of around 40 per cent without any independent judgment of the basis for that increase.

  Interestingly there was no public consultation at all about the bill that has been introduced into the parliament. There has been no inquiry. It was just baldly announced in the media and it has been presented to the parliament. It reduces the number of members of the House of Assembly elected from the five existing electorates from 35 to 30.

  The area of deadlocks is the critical area—interestingly this is an issue on which the Liberal Party made a great amount of propaganda during the last state election. It argued that there should be one party with a majority, thus removing the situation whereby the Greens had the balance of power. But with what the government is proposing there is a much greater chance of deadlocks arising. So it is totally in contradiction of its position at the last state election.

  The government is proposing that in a 15/15 situation or a 15/14/1 or 15/13/2—which is what I suspect it believes will occur, 15/13/2, although not on current opinion polls—that situation be resolved by a state-wide count of votes after the election to determine which party or alignment, as defined by the bill, forms the government. Then, whichever party is the largest in terms of the state-wide count, the speaker, who must come from the alignment having the state-wide majority of votes, will have two votes—one deliberative and one casting.

  Reducing the number of members of the House of Assembly to 30 increases the quota under the Hare-Clark system. That, in itself, is not undemocratic, and I have to disagree with Senator Chamarette's assertion that changing the quota is undemocratic. It makes it less likely that minor parties will win, but that does not make it an undemocratic quota. In fact, the new quota will be the same as is required for Senator Chamarette to be elected to this place in a half Senate election, because there would be six members. It certainly lifts the quota and it certainly does make it harder for independent and minor parties to gain seats in the house. But from my political experience I suspect that, when governments fiddle with electoral systems in this way, it generally comes back to bite them. It does not end up having the effect that they thought it would.

  A leading Tasmanian expert on the electoral system, George Howatt, best described in his 1958 report how six member electorates would take away a fundamental premise of a democratic electoral system. That premise is that a majority of voters should have the right to return a majority of representatives. As Senator Chamarette mentioned, this view has been supported by every other expert in the area. There is not one person with a knowledge of electoral systems who is supporting the legislation introduced by the Groom government.

  Already flaws in the bill have been identified. This is only one week after it was presented to parliament. When the premier was questioned about these flaws, he did not appear to have any idea or answer on how to resolve them. For example, the definition of an alignment in clause 9B was amended by the government two or three days after the bill was introduced into parliament.

  More importantly, in a 15-14-1 situation, which could quite easily occur at the next election, it would be quite possible for the party having 14 seats—not a majority—to gain an absolute majority of the votes in a state-wide vote. Therefore, the smaller of the two major parties—even though it has only 14 seats, fewer than the other major party—could gain an absolute majority of votes in a state-wide vote and therefore be entitled to nominate the Speaker. However, this party would not have a majority on the floor of the house. Because of this state-wide election, and the double vote for the Speaker, which in itself is undemocratic, it will in fact create a deadlock situation, not break it. The current government appears to have no solutions to this problem.

  This is a quite blatant effort by a government in power that is rapidly losing popularity. All the current polling shows that it is a very unpopular government. However, there are two years to go to an election; we should not assume too much at this stage. We have a government that is panicking; it was facing significant internal pressure to increase the pay of politicians. It decided that it could increase the pay by presenting it as a cost saving by reducing the number of members of parliament. Instead, it has been shown itself to be unprincipled in its approach to pay rises for politicians by not referring the matter to a tribunal for determination. And it has been unprincipled in its attempt to manipulate the electoral system which, by its very approach and definition, must give an advantage to the government of the day. The government of the day obtains an advantage.

Senator Archer —Why?

Senator SHERRY —Because it is in government. It has that advantage. I was a bit amused when it was drawn to my attention that Michael Hodgman, someone well known to members of the House of Representatives, spent some thousands of dollars prior to the election for Speaker after the last state election. He had his photos taken before the election for Speaker. He donned his gown; he was standing in full regalia out the front of the House of Assembly. He then lost the vote; two of his own side defected. Such is the nature of politics in Tasmania. Although at times I do admire Michael Hodgman's gall and his publicity, I look with some wry amusement on the prospect of him having two votes after the next state election. They are two votes which I am sure Premier Groom would not want to be relying on too much, knowing Michael Hodgman's past penchant for playing to the gallery.

   I turn to international obligations. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is not in the form of a legally binding treaty. Many of the principles it contains are widely regarded as being part of customary international law and so binding on all countries. However, in this case, if we rely on the 1966 case, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which repeats article 21 of the universal declaration in its own article 25, it is apparent that we cannot rely on this covenant to ensure that democracy continues in Tasmania.