By Tony Iltis
HOBART — The state Rundle Liberal government has announced plans for a November 29 referendum on parliamentary change. The referendum would ask two questions: whether to reduce Tasmania's parliamentarians from 54 to 40, and, if the answer is yes, whether they should be seated in a single chamber.
Opinion polls indicate that both questions are likely to win a majority. This is due to an understandable perception that having 14 fewer overpaid politicians would not be a bad thing, and to the undemocratic nature of the current upper house.
Rundle's proposals, however, would make Tasmania's parliament less representative.
Under the government's proposal, of 40 parliamentarians, 28 would be elected by proportional representation from four Hare-Clarke electorates, and the remaining 12 would be elected from single-member electorates. This would be regardless of whether they sit in one or two houses.
Tasmania's current 35-member lower house is elected from five Hare-Clarke electorates. The reduction in the number elected by proportional representation would make it harder for smaller parties and independents to be elected.
The impetus for the change has been the ability of the Greens to win enough seats to prevent either major party obtaining an outright majority.
The big parties have been joined by the local media and business groups in a chorus on the necessity of "stable government" as a precondition for reviving the state's ailing economy. In fact, the more "stable" (or unchallenged) a government is, the more able it is to attack living standards and redistribute wealth to the corporate sector.
The ALP is opposing the referendum because its preferred option is not included. The ALP also supports a 40-member, single chamber parliament, but wants 25 members elected from five Hare-Clarke electorates and 15 by proportional representation from the whole state.
While this would make for a more representative parliament, the 15 members from the statewide electorate would not be allowed to vote on budget bills and no-confidence motions.
The Greens are opposed to the proposed changes, saying fewer politicians means less democracy, and having a principled commitment to a house of review. They would, however, like to see the upper house elected by proportional representation.
The Democratic Socialist Party is also opposing the changes, because of the inadequacy of the options. "A single house, 40-member parliament would be a progressive reform if it were elected by proportional representation", DSP secretary Iggy Kim explained. "Rundle's proposals, on the other hand, are for making parliament even less representative."
A major argument for the changes in the local media is that the state cannot afford 54 very well-paid politicians. To this Kim had an easy solution: "If three quarters of their salaries were taken away, they'd still be earning as much, probably more, than the rest of us.
"This is also important for democratic reform. The absurdly high salaries that politicians get ensure that they see things from the perspective of the very rich. It is a form of institutionalised corruption."
Other democratic reforms Kim suggested included the right of electors to recall representatives and equitable access to radio and TV for all political parties.