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Expansion of House of Assembly Bill 2022

Cassy O'Connor MP  -  Thursday, 10 November 2022

Tags: House of Assembly Restoration, Legislation

Ms O'CONNOR (Clark - Leader of the Greens) - Mr Speaker, I hope our young audience in listening to this debate will have a short lesson in the history of Tasmania's parliament, a very unfortunate chapter where these two old parties in this place in 1998, and it started before that, colluded to cut the numbers from 35 to 25 in an effort to get rid of us. Yet, here we are still and here we stay.

I have listened to the Leader of the Opposition's odd speech. I thought that she strongly made the case for the bill because it is one thing to say, 'There has been chaos and dysfunction and we have lost premiers and we have lost ministers,' which we have, but then to use that as a political point without saying that this House has become dysfunctional because it is too small. That is why we have ministers and premiers dropping like flies, and that is why Labor will support this legislation. I could not work out until the very end whether Labor was going to play this straight. There would be a few people in the House who really question what the value is in getting a lecture on leadership from Ms White.

I will point out to the House that it is not unusual for government to announce a policy position or a law during a debate on another topic, or on an initiative that has been brought forward by another party. Last week, the Government announced its intention to introduce single-use plastics legislation during debate on our bill.

It almost goes without saying that the Greens support this bill but I will say it anyway: we strongly support the restoration of the House of Assembly for democracy, good governance, community representation, and portfolio and workload sustainability for ministers. We strongly support this bill. We believe, and I think there was a nod to this in both the previous contributions, that there is broad community support for restoring the numbers to 35 in the House of Assembly. Over the past 24 years people have seen the consequence and the huge cost of cutting the number to 25. This legislation in many ways mirrors the Greens' House of Assembly Restoration Bill of 2021, which is still on the books ready for debate but we will not have to debate it.

It has been 24 long years in the making so this is a good day. It is a good day for Tasmanian democracy. Personally, having been a member of the Greens for 20 years and inspired in significant part by the work of Peg Putt, I feel very blessed to be here for this day.

I want to acknowledge those people and organisations who have worked so hard to get us to this point.

First, I acknowledge that the Premier understood that this is simply the right thing to do for good governance in Tasmania and had the courage to announce that his Government would move to restore the numbers in the House of Assembly.

The relentless work of Peter Chapman, from the Tasmanian Constitutional Society, who has put in a weekly phone call to our office for years now advocating, lobbying, making submissions, passionate about having the numbers restored in the House of Assembly so we can have true community representation, good governance, and sustainable workloads for ministers and premiers.

I also acknowledge the advocacy of academics such Professor Richard Herr, Emeritus Professor Peter Boyce, and someone who has joined us in the Chamber today who was there when the numbers were cut, and that is the Tasmanian Greens former chief of staff, Cath Hughes. I am so pleased Cath is in the Chamber today. Cath's first experience working with the Greens was before the numbers were cut. It was Cath and Peg Putt who came in here after that 1998 election when Peg was the only Green left standing and she set up her little fold-up chair here, where there were no crossbench chairs, and there was no real space for Peg. The symbol of Peg coming in and representing us and holding her ground, as she did for four years, made the Greens proud.

It made me so proud that when the 2002 election happened and we had four Greens elected to the House of Assembly after Peg's long four years working with just Cath and another staff member called Rosemary, where she was the true opposition in this place, standing up for social justice and human rights, and the forests and the wild places. After that four years of Peg really being the true opposition, four members were elected to the House of Assembly in 2002, including Nick McKim, Kim Booth and Tim Morris. The Greens were back in town.

I thank Cath for relentlessly working to help to repair some of the damage that was done in 1998. I recommend to people to have a look at the submission Ms Hughes made to the Tasmanian House of Assembly select committee on the House of Assembly Restoration Bill of 2018, which was a Greens bill. It is excellently written, of course, but it also takes us through the history of attempts to shrink and occasionally expand, but mostly shrink the House of Assembly.

There was a long line of inquiries and reports into the composition of the Tasmanian Parliament, including the 1982 Beaumont Report, which arose from the Royal Commission into the Constitution Act of 1934; the 1984 Ogilvie Report, and Ms Ogilvie is in here today; the 1994 Morling Inquiry Report; and the 2011 Boyce Report from the review of the proposal to restore the House of Assembly. Ms Hughes very helpfully puts in some corking quotes from those various reports. The 1994 Morling Report stated and advised:

In order for a parliament to work effectively, it must have sufficient numbers to enable it to discharge its functions adequately. A House of Assembly with fewer than 35 members would have difficulty in discharging adequately its functions as the house of government. We do not think a reduction in the number of members of the Assembly should be made at the risk of impairing its ability to discharge those functions.

Yet, that is exactly what happened. Ten eminent academics warned in an open letter to parliamentarians at the time that this collusion was happening between the then Liberal government and the then Labor opposition with Jim Bacon as opposition leader. They said in their open letter:

There are serious implications for the democratic scope of government in any cut to parliamentary numbers. There is also a need to revisit and debate the extent to which reduced numbers will curtail parliament's capacity to provide effective oversight and control of executive action. The very institution of parliament itself may be debased by the proposal to reduce parliamentary numbers.

To parliamentary numbers. There is also a need to revisit and debate the extent to which reduced numbers will curtail parliament's capacity to provide effective oversight and control of executive action. The very institution of parliament itself, may be debased by the proposal to reduce parliamentary numbers.

That is exactly what happened. We had an ineffective backbench. We had an overworked cabinet. We had a diminished opposition and thank goodness we had the Greens in here. Then there was the Ogilvie report, which found:

It obviously stretches the principle of individual ministerial responsibility to its limits, when one minister is responsible for say five departments, five authorities and a great diversity of staff.

We have that situation now where, within the current Cabinet, there are ministers with four, five and six portfolios. It is unsustainable, it is not good governance, and it is unhealthy for ministers to be so overloaded.

In the Ogilvie report, the advisory committee calculated that in the circumstances where you have a reduced House, a governing party of 13 MPs or fewer, in such circumstances, after providing for the Speaker and chairman of committees, the Government would have a backbench of only two members. Hello? And here we are:

Plainly a backbench of that size would not constitute an adequate number within which new members may gain parliamentary experience and from which future ministerial aspirants could be selected.

I take Ms White's point here. What we have had happen, because of this shrunken Assembly which we are privileged to be elected to, is that new members like Mr Ellis come in and because ministers were falling like flies - we have lost two ministers and a premier this year - Mr Ellis, instead of having that time, which for backbenchers is so important to learn the ropes of parliament, has been chucked into the ministry with really weighty portfolios.

Mr Jaensch - He is doing a great job.

Ms O'CONNOR - You might say that, but if you take away all the politics, it is not fair on a new, young MP. Ms Hughes' submission goes on to talk about the diminishing of the parliamentary committee system because you have backbenchers who are assigned members of four, six or eight committees. It is totally unsustainable. It means that the committees cannot do their work properly.

There are some great quotes. I was thinking of these quotes when Ms White was speaking. The former Labor minister David Llewellyn said on ABC radio in 2011:

And obviously, you know, I think we're in this situation - and again probably one of the other topics, and Peg touched on a moment ago, is actually the size of parliament.

I could admit now, I guess, as being part of the government back in 1998 or 1997, in conspiring - I suppose that is not the best of words but I think that's what it was - between the Liberal Party and the Labor Party to reduce the size of parliament on the basis that it would take more percentage from minor parties to actually win a seat. I think that was wrong. I will admit it was wrong. I really think we should do something about that.

Bill Bale, former Solicitor-General, said:

I think the reduction in the size of parliament, and that is at the House of Assembly, from 35 to 25 was a retrograde step. I don't believe 25 people, generally elected on a two-party basis in Tasmania, there may be a third party, certainly a third grouping, I don't believe that leaves the governing party with enough people on its benches to provide a strong ministry, particularly if two or three ministers, as has happened fairly recently in this state for one reason or another, find that they have to resign. There is very little reserve on the backbench and I don't believe that leads to good decision making.

Here is the former president of the Legislative Council, Sue Smith:

I think significantly upstairs, I have not seen any disadvantage in the number cutting.

The upper House was cut from 19 to 15. It is a matter of record.

Ms Smith said:

I can't say the same for the House of Assembly though. I think we made a significant error in the cutting of numbers in that House. I think that's reflecting through the parliament at this stage.

Famous, wonderful journalist and Mercury commentator, Wayne Crawford, said:

The extent to which the executive government can be held to account for its accounts and inactions, that is the sinister side-effect of reducing the numbers.

The government backbench has all but been eliminated and is no longer strong enough to promote a culture that encourages rather than forbids the canvassing of dissenting views within the Government ranks, and the Opposition is now so tiny there are not even enough members to shadow the Cabinet.

Cutting the numbers to get rid of the Greens did not work because, in 2002 we came back with four members and, in 2010, five Greens were elected, in 2014 three, and in 2018 two. We are still here and we will be back with more after the next election. In all likelihood, there will be other varied voices in here as well and that is good. Other Independents, thoughtful Independents, real community representatives, will make for healthier debates and a stronger parliament and a better contest of ideas.

A few years ago, when we moved our House of Assembly Restoration Bill 2018 and it was referred to a select committee, I had a few things to say about how ill-suited our parliament size is to the size of the growing state we live in. While the contemporary context has changed in the four years since that bill, the history and argument for change has not. One change we have had, and it is a big change that is relevant to this bill, is that we are joined by the Independent member for Clark, Ms Johnston, who is the first Independent elected to this House in their own right since the 1998 seat cut, so viva the Greens and Independents and a healthy democracy.

While the 1998 reforms failed in limiting the influence of the Greens, until the 2021 election they have quite effectively excluded Independents from this Chamber. For a bit of history, the first real chats about cutting the numbers began in 1983, coincidentally the same year Bob Brown entered parliament as the Greens Independent member for Denison on a countback following the resignation of Democrats MP Norm Sanders. Then-Liberal premier Robin Gray established an advisory committee which reported the next year and that was the Ogilvie report, Ms Ogilvie, which recommended against any reduction in the size of numbers.

Ten years later, following the breakdown of the Labor-Greens accord in 1992, Liberal premier Ray Groom introduced a pair of linked measures - and this was so cynical - a reduction in the House of Assembly from 35 to 30 members and a 40 per cent salary increase for the remaining MPs. These issues were untied during the parliamentary process and only the 40 per cent pay rise at that time was passed into law.

In 1994, premier Groom established a board of inquiry into the size of the Tasmanian parliament and the Morling Report was handed down in 1994, again recommending against any reduction in the size of the House of Assembly. In 1997, one year into the Liberal-Greens minority arrangement, with a defeated proposal for a referendum to reduce the size of parliament by removing a lower House electorate and reducing the size of the Legislative Council to 16, the issue reared its head again.

The timing of all these proposals, very clearly and not coincidentally, correspond with periods when the Greens were at the height of their influence. To this day, this reform is used as an example of political collusion in political science courses. Labor and the Liberals colluded to reduce the size of parliament in order to try to eliminate the Greens - well, hello. During the 1998 debate, the late Liberal MP Michael Hodgman made no secret that it was his sincere wish that we be eliminated, removed from the face of the parliament, so we can call that another failure to get rid of us.

From the Greens' point of view, plenty of Tasmanians vote to keep us in here because they know we have integrity, work hard, stand up for this island and its people, will not sell out to corporations, and will always stay true. We cannot be bought and we will not sell out.

It did not work. We had another balance-of-power parliament in 2010 and there will be other balance-of-power parliaments in the future and that is no bad thing. There may be one where the Greens are not part of that because there might be other members from other community interests.

Ms White talked about the 2010 letter where all three political leaders committed to restoring the House of Assembly. That was then-premier David Bartlett, then-Liberal leader Will Hodgman, and then-Greens leader Nick McKim. It was a signed letter with all three signatures. It looked like a commitment but of course the Liberals were the first to blink and then-premier Giddings decided pretty quickly thereafter that she did not have the courage to take it through on her own, so we had another wasted decade.

In 2018 we brought in our bill, and the select committee that was established into the Greens' House of Assembly Restoration Bill 2018 had on it two government members, I think two Labor members and a Greens, but that does not sound quite right because the numbers would not add up for the government. Whatever it was - off the top of my head I cannot recall - they overwhelmingly, unanimously heard the evidence and agreed that the House of Assembly needed to be restored.

There were only two recommendations in that report. The first was to restore the numbers in the House of Assembly and the mechanism for doing that at the time was the Greens bill; and the second was that we begin work on a process to establish two dedicated Aboriginal seats in Tasmania's parliament. That is unfinished business of this parliament. I know that the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs is working through the truth-telling and treaty process. I would say it is very slow, because it has been almost exactly a year since Professors Warner and McCormack handed down their report. Making sure there is Aboriginal representation in the Tasmanian parliament should be something that guides us very strongly in here and I hope that is part of the discussions on truth-telling, treaty and justice.

On the cut in seats, Richard Herr is probably worth quoting:

The Liberal Party and Australian Labor Party combined in a bipartisan assault on the parliament itself in a misguided attempt to decrease probability of any future minority government. The stratagem the two parties adopted reduced the size of parliament to a level that they expected would prevent third parties from holding the balance of power on the floor of the House of Assembly. This action has totally distorted the relationship between parliament and government to such an extent that it is arguable the Westminster tradition itself is in jeopardy.

He says:

Despite a great deal of sophistry about cost savings and the like, the driving force behind the change was an irresistible urge to secure majority party control of the government by raising the electoral threshold for the Greens to an unachievable level.

In the context of other like-sized jurisdictions, the primary objection that has been raised in the past to restoration is that Tasmania has more politicians per capita than any other Australian state. It is not a salient measure and it is also not accurate in the broader context. Comparisons are often made between Tasmania and the ACT, which has a similar population and the same size lower House. However, this is a poor comparison for a number of reasons.

The ACT has a geographic area that is just 3.5 per cent the size of Tasmania. The ACT is far less spatially and socially disparate than Tasmania, which is a reasonable argument for needing less board representation. The ACT is also the seat of the Australian Government, containing 37.5 per cent of federal public servants. Access to federal politicians, public servants and public services is far easier in the nation's capital than it is here in lutruwita/Tasmania.

The territory also has historical structural differences to Tasmania. The ACT was not self-governing until 1988, when the Australian Parliament passed the ACT Self-Government Act. The ACT has no constitutional protections or rights; it only has legislative power granted like the 1988 act which can be overridden at any time by the Commonwealth Government. As a result of the ACT Legislative Assembly's constituting document being Commonwealth regulations, the ACT was not able to roll through its own composition until amendments were passed in 2013. Subsequently, in 2014 the number of seats increased to 25.

Looking more broadly than the ACT, there are 30 countries in the world structured as federations like Australia. Within these, there are 574 sub-national jurisdictions, 496 of which have legislature data available. Those not included are the United Arab Emirates and Papua New Guinea which have no sub-national legislatures, and Sudan and South Sudan, which did not have data available for their jurisdictions. Tasmania's House in comparison does not perform well, with the average size of a House for states with a population between 400 000 and 600 000 like ours, sitting at 45 members.

Of the 75 bicameral parliaments across the globe, Tasmania has the third-smallest lower House, beaten only by two states in the United States of America - the Northern Mariana Islands and American Samoa. These states have lower Houses of 20 and 21 seats respectively and populations of 54 000 and 56 000 thereabouts respectively, so about a tenth of the population of Tasmania.

Tasmania also has the seventh-smallest combined legislature of the 75 bicameral parliaments. Looking at both bicameral lower Houses and unicameral parliaments, Tasmania has the eighty-fifth smallest out of 574 states. Of the 84 parliaments smaller than ours, the Economist Intelligent Unit only classifies three as full democracies - Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut.

It is worth noting that because we are a federation, Australian states have more responsibilities than average state equivalents in federal models of government. Australia's Constitution provides for one of the most extensive models of concurrent responsibility in the world. This means there are fewer areas where the state has no responsibility than in many other federal countries, increasing the number of ministries required for effective administration.

The bottom line is that by any measure, our parliament is a very small one and our state is growing and will grow more as more and more people seek refuge from the heat and want to live somewhere that is wild and beautiful and get out of the rat race. Our population will continue to increase and we need to have a parliament and governance structures that are capable of administering portfolios effectively, delivering good services and making sure that in this place we have robust debates, a strong backbench, a strong opposition and a strong and effective crossbench.

In winding up, I point out that there has been a broad range of people from across politics who have supported this legislation or the intent behind this legislation, including Liberal Senator Eric Abetz, Greens Senator Nick McKim, and federal Labor MP Julie Collins, all calling for reforms to see an improved pool of talent for ministries. Senator Abetz called for a restoration of the seats. We have had the former president of the Legislative Council, Jim Wilkinson, backing restoration; Greg Hall, former MLC, is very strongly in favour; and importantly, we have had the Tasmanian Chamber of Commerce and Industry back this legislation because they know it is important that we have good governance here.

Mr Speaker, I will briefly respond to something the Premier said in his second reading speech. I also acknowledge that he said:

I am not the first member of this House or the first premier to seek to put right the decision that was made in 1998.

Well, Premier, you are in fact the first premier to seek to put right that decision. I know it has been a bit difficult for you and I am sure that within the broad church of the Liberal Party there is a range of views about the approach you will take. I also know that as a result of that in part you sought the advice of the Tasmanian Electoral Commission, which handed you a report that very strongly made the case for the five seats of seven members and I am thankful that you accepted the TEC's advice. I would be remiss, though, not to make the point that the Greens have been the only members in this place consistently prior to you who have sought to put right that decision; that is a fact.

This bill remedies the wrong of 1998. It will lead to a greater talent pool and a parliament with more capacity and better community representation. Who knows what the 2025 state election will bring but it will be a 35-seat election and I, for one, am excited to see what happens then because it will be a festival of democracy. Long live our precious and fragile democracy.

We have seen what happens when people get out to vote. We have seen it in the United States just this week. We have seen young people, Gen Z and women save America from collapsing into fascism, at least for now. Democracy is very important. It is a precious thing and we are all privileged to be able to vote and to be able to be part of it.

I strongly commend the Expansion of House of Assembly Bill to the House.