It is important to keep the Upper House independent

13/8//2020

There have been progressive moves over the years for political parties to dominate what was once an independent Legislative Council (LC), the Upper House of the Tasmanian Parliament.  The House has fifteen members.  Now, eight are party members. More and more, political parties are selecting candidates for the Upper House and with the political machine behind them; an independent rarely has the resources to effectively compete. The future can only see more political party members.

But what does it matter?  The problem is showing itself already, and it will be detrimental for the electors of Tasmania. To understand why, one has to know the history of the House and its purpose.

The LC’s heritage goes back a long way. Independence from New South Wales for Van Diemen’s was proclaimed in 1825 and the following year, the LC was formed to administer the new colony.  There were six members, all nominated. In 1854 the number of members was enlarged to 33, most mostly nominated, but new members were elected by restricted voting.

In 1856, the colony, now called Tasmania, received Responsible government and a bicameral Parliament established, made up of the Lower House, the House of Assembly and the Upper House, the Legislative Council. This system was established by the Tasmanian Constitution Act of 1854. The first Speaker of the LC was Sir Richard Dry.

Voting in Tasmania is compulsory and the voting age was lowered to 18 in 1973. Whereas those who were allowed to vote in LC elections was previously restricted to the property classes, since 1969 full adult franchise exists.

Voting systems, length of time served, and boundaries differ for both houses, but so is the purpose and that difference are vital to good government.

Tasmania’s Upper House has been unique in Australia in that it has had a long tradition of independent members. Past years it has been seen as a comfortable institution for members of the establishment acting more like a men’s club than anything else.  Opponents have criticised the LC as being “archaic” and time for it to go. The role it plays, however, is most important. One reason is to ensure the Lower House, which is dominated by two parties, Labor and Liberal, and a number of Greens, is held in check.

The LC can be very powerful, able to block supply and call elections. Because of this and for other reasons, it is often the bane of the Lower House. Often legislation coming from the Lower House, which must be passed by the Upper House for it to become law, is not only poorly worded, but it may not be in the interest of the Tasmanian people. Therefore the LC is a house of review.  Legislation from the Lower House can be sent back, delayed or even rejected.  By nature the LC has been a deliberate conservative house, so there can be a check and review on what is coming from the other House.

Some decades ago, wanting to know further on the workings of the LC, I was advised to interview the late William (Bill) Hodgman who was a member of the Upper House from 1971 until 1983 and a an ex-President of the House. He pointed out to me, in no uncertain terms, that the LC was not only a house of review, but also a legislative house, being able to introduce its own legislation.

There are regular calls for the abolishment of the LC.  Only recently, ex-Premier Michael Field said so, backed up (oddly enough) by Independent member Ivan Dean.  Ex-Premier Robin Gray in his new book agrees, believing that if is dominated by party politics there is no reason for its existence. While I do not agree with Mr Gray, I can understand his reasoning.

The Labor Party has more LC members than the Liberals.  The LC can abolish itself and given enough party politicians it could be in the party’s interest to do so. We can see this happening. What then, are the ramifications of only having a unicameral system of Parliament?

Party politics does not necessarily represent the people. Political parties first established themselves in Tasmania’s Parliament in 1909.  Members of whatever party represent the party first and if they do not are asked to move on. They also can represent powerful lobby groups and international bodies.  This may not be in the interest of the Tasmanian people.  The parties tell the people at election time, these are our policies, now choose between us, whereas it should be the reverse. The people should be saying, these are our policies, now represent our will.

If there are no independent members of the LC we will see further poorly worded and ambiguous legislation, which (again) may not in the interest of the electorate, passed without any review or checking. The LC exists for an important service. On most occasions the debate of the LC is superior to the Lower House.  W.A. Townsley wrote (his book The Government of Tasmania 1976) LC members express their views “in the strongest term, unhindered by party affiliation” and later “The great strength of the Council rests on having a body to reach decisions without having to respect party affiliations” (P. 82).

Without this check, political parties would be able to pass legislation in their own interest.  On occasions the opposition will support the government which (again) may not be in the interest of Tasmanians. We will see political parties even more, push their own agendas.

The development of political parties taking over the LC will ultimately see the abolishment of the LC which will result in less representation for the electorate and less checks and balances on politicians. Good for the government, but not for the people.


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