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Archive for April, 2012

Tasmanian Legislative Council, Why does it remain so different?

Posted by cegan on April 29, 2012

This  rather long blog is dedicated to the Tasmanian Legislative Council and why it maintains the same powers that it was given from Britain in 1825 and thus remains distinctly different to other upper houses in the federation.
The Legislative Council (upper house) in Tasmania is the only upper house that has the power to reject a budget and send the lower house to an election without it being forced to the polls as well. Indeed the focus in Tasmania’s reform agenda of parliament has been to restrict Greens voting prowess rather than loosening the power grip of the upper house.
What’s more the upper house is how the Australian Senate was envisaged, independent and based on representing your local region. What is different and what I find extremely bizarre is that members of the legislative council are voted on six year terms, but 2-3 senators are up for election every year. So your senate is continually changing, but also maintains such significant power as they never come up for a real election cycle.The history of this Legislative Council is that it has never elected a Greens party member, only a few labor and liberal. Of the current 15 seats in the upper house, 12 are independents. They are traditionally ex local mayors or someone of note in the business community. There is set advertising limits set for everyone participating in the election (eg thus it’s bias to those who have a strong local profile in one of the fifteen districts.)

Thus the upper house in Tasmania has recently been called a retirement village by Bill Shorten.

“If Tasmanians, and citizens of Hobart, keep returning people to the Legislative Council who view it as a destination after a career and working life, as a reward, some sort of earthly ascent into a retirement village which is the best remunerated in Tasmania, that is not good enough,”

(The Mercury, April 10 2012)

So my exposé and sudden interest in the bizzare and wacky world of Tasmanian Politics has some current day relevance as two local districts set to re-elect a senator after a six year term. Looking at letter to the editors, the community are well in favour of independents saying they don’t want ‘labor lackys’ in the job, but also a view that the ex Hobart Lord Mayor was incompetent and did nothing for the city in his job as Lord Mayor in the past.

The key theme is the advantage of being a local mayor to build up your profile or business leader all delivers a very strong conservative arm through Tasmania’s upper house.  Especially due to the lack of youth that is encouraged into a system that requires a significant networking that an older person is more than likely to have an advantage.

A current issue that is forming in Tasmania is that the power of the upper house is delivering some concern to the budget situation, it is the only upper house in the country that can reject the budget and with no party affiliation holding the balance of power, it is unpredictable and can hold the lower house to ransom. The current concern is further cuts to the Health Budget, which is a concern for these members as they are all of an age that requires increasing utilisation of the health services.

To understand the power, we have to look at its history. The Legislative Council was created soon after independence from NSW, when you had a Governor General making decisions and there was no lower house. It preceded the lower house and was created in a different political dimension, thus the archaic and difference compared to the upper houses across the rest of the country.

So why hasn’t it been reformed?

The Greens party

In 1998 the two major parties  passed through the lower house the reduction of seats from 35 to 25 seats. Political analysis declared that this was done so that the continuation of Greens holding minority government with Labor would stop.

In the following election we had a similar oath of never accepting partnership with the Greens that you had with the Republican Party recently when they promised never to raise the debt ceiling. They promised not to ever go into partnership with the Greens again in government. By the next election their primary vote went up from 32 per cent to 40 per cent and they were able to form majority government for the first time in many years. There was declarations that the Greens would no longer have any power in the lower house now that this reform had been accomplished

In effect this leads from the Franklin River episode and the establishment of the Greens party, however it is a much stronger and ideologically opposed party compared to Greens parties in Western Australia for instance. The Labor party in Tasmania is also stringently conservative with ideologically there being labor and liberals on the centre right and the greens on the far left. In one opinion from a political analysis, Labor was the party of hydro industrialisation who has held power for the majority of the past century in Tasmania and it was the Greens who have presented this challenge to the dominance of the Labor party. They had taken away the environmental wing of the Labor party.

Indeed in 96-98 you had the Tasmanian Liberal Party form minority government with the Greens, something impossible to imagine on the mainland, but had been done because of the  lack of desire of Labor to partner with them. As we have seen, their base hates it and the Labor party has been punished by its voters when they have sided with the Greens. However the Liberal Party also hated it as they failed to nullify the issues between their business base and the strong environmentalist viewpoints of the Tasmanian Greens.

So it gets back to why we still have this upper house, it’s political motives support it. A more common upper house like the rest of the country would result in stronger power to the Greens and effective legislative blockage due to the Strength of opposition of the greens and the two other parties. As we have seen this then forces federal intervention into Tasmanian state politics due to the power of the two greens in the upper house and their politicial might. Tasmanian environmental issues then become national debates.

As we have seen recently, the 1998 legislative reforms did not prevent greens from holding minority government with 21 per cent of the votes at the 2010 election. This was a record vote for the Greens.

And what has been the reaction of parliament? Look at parliamentary reforms, they are now looking at going back to 35 seats in the lower house as these reforms did not destroy the ability for the Greens to gain power. The efficiency explanation has been lost, they just will go to a referendum rather than pass it through parliament. A cynical side thinks it is done so it reduces the power of the greens as other independents get elected as what happened in the last parliament before the reduction of parliamentary seats. Eg create a more diverse parliament. The claim that Labor would never form minority government with the Greens was lost after the Governor General decided that Labor would form a more stable government than the Liberal Party after the last election.

A conservative upper house has the power in this game, the Tasmanian Government has no political mileage to change the upper house or any effective reform to its powers when it assures them of more effective governance due to the conservative bias which restricts the power of the greens in both houses. We just have to look at what happened in WA with a Greens upper house with balance of power and the election of a new Labor government overtaking a conservative liberal government – legislation rapidly shifted the political mindset and thus Western Australian political culture, perhaps forever.

As long as the political game remains so polarised, equal to that of the US Politics at present and you have a significant political party so opposed to the ideologies of the major party you will continue to have all the powers the upper house has, including the ability to block budgets. Tasmanian Labor can’t be too critical of the bed they have got themselves into,  anything other than the status quo would create huge governance issues. What’s more the political climate favours  it. Labor and Liberal voters hate forming minority government with Greens and they have significant governance issues when it happens, primary votes fall and then the next party gets a go at trying to form government with the greens and ultimately poor governance. It’s majority or nothing for the Tasmanian parliament.

Tasmania is consumed with an ideological divide not seen in the rest of the country. In this case it’s Labor+Liberal v Greens. So we have this upper house from bygone eras enshrined  for many more years to come, despite some hesitation of the power this branch of government holds compared to other upper houses in the Westminster system.  The alternative for Labor and Liberal in Tasmania is just too scary a thought…

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Oruzgan far from safe

Posted by cegan on April 26, 2012



In recent days we have seen the reports that Australian troops will begin the withdrawal of Australian troops from Oruzgan province in Afghanistan. But will Australia make the same mistakes of the past? Will it leave the country too early?

The Age, which covers the Afghan conflict better than anyone in Australia says the security situation has been ‘doctored’ in a recent report on the conflict.

“despite improvements, security is fragile, the Taliban resilient and the Afghan army’s performance patchy at best” ( the Age, 8th April)

But then you must ask when do you leave? What is the end game in Afghanistan? Was the re- entering of Australia in Afghanistan after previous exit ‘because of improved situation on the ground worth it if there is still much to secure peace?

Indeed as Wilkie has eloquently postulated, this was another Vietnam and after foreign intervention, the livelihoods of the Afghans would largely be little better than when they were there before.

But then you have also he destruction of trust with US and other allied forces contributing to the misery of the drug warlords and Taliban. In the future the same conversations and diplomacy will be harder to achieve as the troops on the ground have killed many innocent family members with no tangible increase in security in Afghanistan or other parts of the world.

There is no good guys in Afghanistan, just a whole lot of misery. Celebrate our troops coming home, but also spare a thought for the Afghan people who have yet to see this supposed intervention delivering anything tangible in return for foreign occupation.

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View from the West – Not even a slipper of attention

Posted by cegan on April 26, 2012

Peter Slipper, could create a constitutional crisis with a blockage of supply in the lower house, but yet there has been very little attention on the controversy. Indeed Janet Woolard’s son declaring bankruptcy for not being able to pay for civil action against him was a bigger story than Peter Slipper’s fraud and sexual harrassment allegations.  The priorities of the mainstream media prioritising  state issues over federal conversations is quite disconcerning

On 7 News last night the Anzac Day ceremony did not get Abbott’s or Gillard’s reflections, no it focussed on Barnett, our state Premier. A continued alteration on the traditional realm of state/federal politics that is being blended together in Western Australia as its citizens ignore the federal parliament in increasing numbers.

This is the hidden impact of the reduction in GST funds per dollar spent by Western Australian’s with it dropping down to 27 cents in the dollar in the next five years.

With middle class and lower class welfare provisions being funded by the state government, the federal government becomes less important, the population looks to its state government to fix problems and federal issues lack traction. A dangerous path when you consider a State Premier’s reflection is given such weight on such a national day such as Anzac Day.

These are the stories not told about the wedge issues of the two speed economy. While Western Australian’s are extremely parochial and desire the clear seperation of state and federal power, it complicates policy desires when the Federal Government seeks to not to try and solve the division in power and you have a State Nationals party that has a massive warchest to deliver state intervention and state welfare, particularly to rural voters.

Again the GST payments falling to 27% of total money spent by Western Australian’s into the future  will cause some significant federal-state issues and the Federal Liberal Party will also feel the heat when it comes to power.

Indeed many in the federal election will vote Liberal on the premise Western Australia will get looked after better under a Federal Liberal Government, not about the ideological position that they hold.

The problem is that Abbott will gain this support, but will then be significantly burdened by the expectation of the electorate. Just as he became disillusioned by the independence of the WA Nationals following the last election, the increasing independence of Western Australia will require significant policy adjustments and shifting of political conversations done by the Liberals that are elected into power.

Many who are voted in will be well aware they have the luxury to look at issues in a WA prism, disunity is assured if Abbott doesn’t deliver the special attention that Western Australia so desires to fund its massive infrastructure program it has planned for the next decade.

As we get this shifting of political conversations, the state will impact Federal Politics and due to the concerns of the political powerbase in the south-east, this will alter the composition and atmosphere of federal parliament.  WA’s parochialism will be allowed to fester without a policy objective to nullify this in sight.

Peter Slipper belongs to a parliament that is growingly irrelevent to a state who  is finding leadership from its State Premier, with greater consequences for Federal Parliament than many within it can imagine.

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