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Thursday, 18 November 1993
Page: 3203


Senator BELL (8.42 p.m.) —Regardless of what is claimed by Senator Archer, I would contend that Tasmania's Hare-Clarke electoral system is widely known and recognised as one of the most democratic electoral systems in the world. Indeed, it was the model for one of the options put to the people of Canberra in a referendum last year to decide the method of electing Canberra's Legislative Assembly.

  Successive governments in Tasmania, Labor and Liberal alike, have acknowledged that the Tasmanian electoral system for the House of Assembly is the best in the world. But now and then governments or political parties find that it does not suit them. It is not designed to of course. It is designed to be a system to best suit the electors, that produces a parliament that best represents the interests of the electorate. The Hare-Clarke system of Tasmania does that.

  It is precisely because the Hare-Clarke system best reflects the interests and values of the electorate that it comes under threat by the power seekers—by those who think they know best. We heard reflections of this in the last contribution. We hear this from those who think they know best and those who think they know what is good for us. Now the system is being threatened again. It is a subtle threat, but a threat all the same.

  The Groom government does not propose to radically alter the basic building blocks that make up what we know as the Hare-Clarke system. For example, it does not propose to revert to single member electorates. It does not propose to introduce how-to-vote cards. It does not threaten the principle of rotating names on the ballot paper. What it does do is propose a reduction in the number of members to be elected—a reduction from 35 to 30.

  This is a reflection of some popular or, if I may say, populist thinking. Perhaps even more precisely it is non-thinking. The people have in a superficial fashion asserted that Tasmania is overgoverned and that we have too many politicians. To some extent there is merit in that proposition. Tasmania currently has 35 members of the House of Assembly and 19 members of the Legislative Council. It has about 300 members of local councils and quite a number of members of progress associations. Members of the Assembly and members of the Legislative Council are politicians and are paid by the taxpayers. The people elected to councils or progress associations are not paid but they are politicians nonetheless. Recently, the number of councils was reduced from 46 to 29. It is valid to question whether such a reduction actually enhances the quality of democracy in Tasmania.

  What is a qualitative measure of democracy? It surely involves notions of degrees of participation. From there, however, it is also legitimate to question how that participation is measured and indeed how it operates within a system. In other words, we really do need to be examining a whole range of questions about the functioning of our political institutions before we can be categorical about assertions of threats to basic democratic principles.

  Indeed a view that has been proffered recently calls for reduced numbers of politicians, but in a manner that accommodates a number of other changes to institutional structures. Nevertheless, it has been pointed out by acknowledged experts that a mere reduction in the number of members of the House of Assembly is simply wrong. A decade ago, as we have been told already, a previous Liberal government proposed a similar reduction. To its credit it appointed an expert committee to examine the proposition. Not surprisingly the idea was rejected by the committee and it was then dropped. The committee rejected that idea for good reasons.

  One of the members of that committee, who has been mentioned already, is an acknowledged world expert in the Hare-Clarke system, Mr George Howatt. He is formerly an American Fullbright scholar who has devoted a substantial proportion of his life to studying the Hare-Clarke voting system. For example, in 1957 it was Mr Howatt's recommendation that the numbers be increased from 30 to 35.

  The committee, of which Mr Howatt was one of three members, pointed out serious anomalies that would result from an assembly reduced to 30 members. Apart from the problems of deadlocks which would be created, it would unacceptably increase the power of executive government. The reasons are quite simple. With a house reduced to 30, the number of members of a governing party might be 16. With a cabinet of nine or 10, that could mean that the cabinet would prevail within the governing party itself and within the assembly as well. The cabinet government would be unchecked by the governing house. It might as well be a dictatorship.

  But worse, governments need to be able to change ministers, to bring in new people and to develop expertise. A reduction in the numbers on the backbench would reduce the pool of talent from which ministers could be chosen. That would weaken the quality of government, not improve it.

  More generally, a reduction from 35 to 30 members would unacceptably reduce the number of members available to serve on committees—an increasing function of modern parliaments, as we in this chamber are well aware. A few years ago it was precisely that argument which was used to justify an increase in the number of members of the House of Representatives and the Senate. For Tasmania especially, that is a valid argument. Senator Sherry touched on that when he mentioned the committee examining the reform of the Tasmanian parliament. As I understand it, the consideration of committees forms a major part of the considerations of that committee, which has yet to report. It has now been gazumped by this proposition.

  It is high time that the structure of the total Tasmanian parliament was examined. It is being re-examined. It should be conducted against the need to focus on the best way to provide good government for the people of Tasmania, not the best way to provide an entrenched system for the benefit of those who happen to be in government at the moment.

  The proposition to reduce the number of politicians includes the reduction in the number of members of the Legislative Council from 19 to 15. As Sir Geoffrey Foot, a former member of the council, has argued as recently as yesterday, this will merely create a small controlling cabal in the council which will have the potential to make the council even more reactionary than it is described at the moment.

  That council's conservatism and parochialism has brought it under considerable criticism for many years. It is one of the most powerful upper houses in the world. It is able to reject budgets and cause elections without ever facing the voters itself for doing those things.

  The council has six-year rotating terms, coupled with a single member electorate system of representation that is grossly malapportioned and is a travesty of basic democratic principles because one person, one vote is not reflected in the make-up of that council. It is a blot on Australia's political landscape and it should not be permitted to continue in its present shape. Indeed, there is a strong argument that all state political institutions should have to meet national criteria of democratic principles. That is perhaps a topic that should be debated within the debate about Australia becoming a republic. It is certainly not appropriate to conclude such a debate today.

  Such a debate, however, could start now in Tasmania. Tasmania has led political movements for reform before, with the most striking example being the anti-transportation movement led by the Reverend John West. Tasmania could do so again and it should, starting with a thorough review and debate about the way Tasmania's political institutions can be restructured to best provide for good government. Instead of the blatantly cynical proposals now being put by the Groom government, a panel of experts such as Sir Geoffrey Foot and perhaps Dr Ralph Chapman should be commissioned to promote debate about and conduct hearings on the range of options that are available to the Tasmanian people. For example, perhaps we should be retaining the Legislative Council but ensuring that it is elected from a state-wide electorate using proportional representation. That would immediately dispense with the petty parochialism that bedevils us and instead inject into the political arena a state-wide perspective.

  Another view often put is to simply abolish the council, thereby achieving a significant reduction in the number of paid politicians and a consequent big reduction in the cost of governing. It is also argued, however, that the Legislative Council does, even if selectively, provide a check on the excesses of the House of Assembly. This is often seen by some as an anachronistic and unnecessary procedure in a modern democracy. Queensland might have been better served had the excesses of Bjelke-Petersen been curbed by an upper house. Perhaps this is overstated or there are other and better ways of ensuring that governments are accountable. I do not know and we will not know until it has had a full and fair airing in debate.

  Should we not, for example, consider the presidential approach of separately electing premiers and representative assemblies? Indeed, an interesting argument could be mounted for such a structure for state governments. Or, as has been suggested by one of Australia's most conservative newspapers, the Hobart Mercury, in yesterday's editorial, a house of assembly expanded to 45 members—nine per electorate—would provide both the desired reduction in monetary outlays while retaining an inbuilt check on the executive. It would also provide a sufficiently large backbench pool to provide an adequate ministry and sufficient numbers to produce a modern, efficient and potentially effective committee system. The time is right for change. That change must be progressive and it must be consistent with the best principles of democratic government. (Time expired)