Feature Article - Tasmanian election 1998 : a background report
When in April 1997, the Premier, Mr Tony Rundle, delivered a ‘directions statement’ that included a radical restructuring of Parliament, he set in train events, which 16 months later, resulted in the defeat of his Liberal government and the election of Mr Jim Bacon as Premier of the first majority Labor government since the Lowe government was elected in 1977. In so doing, he achieved the most significant change to the structure of Parliament since the introduction of the Hare-Clark voting system almost 100 years before.
Among a series of proposed initiatives, Mr Rundle foreshadowed a referendum on parliamentary reform. He said that with 54 State MPs and 29 councils, Tasmania was over governed. While academics were critical of what they saw as an erosion of democratic values, business leaders, on the other hand, were critical of uncertainty caused by minority government and too many politicians. They saw economic development as dependent on majority government.
In July the peak industry body, the Tasmanian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (TCCI) released its plan for parliamentary reform: a single chamber house consisting of 40 members with 25 elected from five electorates and 15 elected from single-member electorates. The proposal meant retaining the Hare-Clark system of proportional representation but with a higher quota, which, combined with the 15 single-member electorates, would deliver majority government. The proposal would abolish the Legislative Council, which the TCCI saw as an unnecessary impediment to progress. To others, however, it represented an important and desirable check on unfettered government.
Shortly after, the Hon. Peter Nixon released a radical proposal (see TYB 98 pp51-53) for the creation of a single-chamber Parliament of 27 members, elected from nine, three- member electorates. Mr Nixon also focused on the Legislative Council and minority government as the cause of Tasmania’s economic woes. He said governments needed to be able to get on with governing.
THE RUNDLE PLAN
The foreshadowed Rundle proposal for reform of Parliament was tabled in Parliament on 16 September 1997. It proposed a single-house Parliament, of 28 members elected from four, seven-member electorates plus 12 elected from single- member electorates with a special mechanism for ensuring majority votes in the Parliament. As Mr Rundle knew, the challenge was to get such a proposal through the Legislative Council; Mr Rundle’s proposal was to use a referendum that was designed to capitalise on clear public support for a cut in the number of MPs to lead to support for his proposed structure. The Council, however, expressed support for the Labor Party’s plan for a bicameral Parliament consisting of a 25-member Assembly elected from five electorates and a 15-member Council elected from single-member electorates. It substantially amended the Bill, killing the proposed referendum, in a manner unacceptable to the government. A compromise proposal for a bicameral 28-seat Assembly and a 12-seat Council also failed to win the support of the Council and the issue appeared dead.
Instead, it rested till May 1998 when it re-emerged in the form of a Labor Party Bill for a 25-seat Assembly and a 15-seat Council. The turning point came when a Liberal backbencher, Mr Bob Cheek, crossed the floor to vote for the ALP proposal. Then to the surprise of even his own Cabinet, Mr Rundle recalled Parliament for a special two- day sitting of Parliament to adopt the ALP’s reduction proposal. At the same time, he announced his intention to sell the Hydro-Electric Corporation and the date for an early election. Despite vociferous protests from Tasmanian Green MPs, who could see their seats under threat, the legislation was quickly passed by both Houses, allowing for an election for 25 members. Yet although the proposal was largely welcomed, there were those who argued that it was not ‘parliamentary reform’; merely a first step towards a substantial restructuring (see special article 'Parliamentary reform').
The public rationale for the reduction in numbers of politicians was over-government; this was given a statistical framework by the Morling Inquiry.
RATIO OF POLITICIANS TO POPULATION
Ratio of politicians
Source: Report of the Board of Inquiry into the Size and Constitution of the Tasmanian Parliament, 1994
The Tasmanian Parliament was constituted as a bicameral Parliament by the Constitution Act 1854, with its first sitting on 2 December 1856. There were 30 members of the Assembly and 15 Councillors. For the next 100 years, the Assembly numbers remained at 30 while the Council numbers rose to 19.
During the 1950s a problem of a deadlocked House developed. As the inaugural 1967 Tasmanian Year Book reported, ‘one of the virtues claimed for the Hare-Clark [electoral] system is the adequate representation given to minorities. In a small House of 30 members, this virtue tended to be too evident and led to situations where the government of the day did not have the necessary majority to carry all its legislation with confidence’.
The first solution, to give the minority party the right to nominate the House of Assembly Speaker, was not seen as an adequate provision. The solution proposed was to increase the number of MHAs to an uneven 35, which was done.
It obviously went unnoticed, but the first election under the new provisions produced a ‘hung’ parliament (17 Labor, 16 Liberal and 2 Independents) prior to a period of 7 elections that produced ‘majority’ governments.
This came to an end with the watershed 1989 election. While the Liberal Party won most seats (17), 5 Independents grouped together and produced an ‘accord’ with the minority Labor Party through which the ALP, with Mr Field as leader, became Government. It didn’t work; the ‘accord’ collapsed and a Liberal majority government was elected in 1992 after an early election called when the Greens threatened a no-confidence motion. During the campaign the ALP vowed not to return to an ‘accord’ or coalition arrangement, leaving the Liberals in government but as a ‘minority’ government. But by 1998 their enthusiasm for such an arrangement had waned considerably; under the guise of ‘parliamentary reform’ the parliament itself was restructured.
NUMBERS OF POLITICIANS, RATIO TO POPULATION, TASMANIA
(a) For population figures, actual years were 1857, 1870, 1881, 1891, 1906.
Source: ABS data available on request, Demography and House of Assembly, Legislative Council
REPRESENTATION BY PARTIES, TASMANIAN HOUSE OF ASSEMBLY(a)
(a) House of Assembly reduced to 25 seats.
Source: House of Assembly