Published: 19 March 2018

What is the role of the Tasmanian Legislative Council? 

It is timely to consider this important question in light of recent public comment suggesting the Legislative Council lacks relevance and is obstructionist.

The role, as noted in its 2016-17 Annual Report, is threefold: 

“(i) to authorise the raising of revenue and the expenditure of state moneys; 

(ii) to examine the merits of legislation; 

and (iii) to provide a parliamentary check on the government of the day.

In modern times the role of the legislative council has grown from being a purely legislative body to one that examines and analyses the actions, decisions and workings of executive government. Is this role relevant and important?

A government has a right and responsibility to govern. 

The right includes bringing forward policy or legislative reform and the responsibility is to demonstrate the policy will benefit the state, is supported by evidence and is fully considered.

However, without a process of rigorous review, we risk the delivery of an agenda that is not backed by evidence, lacks support and fails to gain the social licence citizens expect of governments and business.

The Parliamentary Library provides historical insight and informs current roles.

Tasmania’s first parliament was unicameral between 1825 and 1856 when the colony was administered by a lieutenant-governor and a legislative council of six members.

In March 1848 Governor William Denison suggested to English authorities that Tasmania ought to have two representative chambers.

He did so because he felt that: 

“There is an essentially democratic spirit which actuates the large mass of the community and it is with a view to check that spirit, of preventing it coming into operation, that I would suggest the formation of an upper chamber.”

This was rejected as an untried form of constitution but in 1854 a select committee of the colonial legislative council presented a report and a draft constitution which recommended the creation of a bicameral parliament.

The principal role of the Tasmanian Legislative Council would be to: 

“guard against hasty and inconsiderate legislation by securing due deliberation previous to the final adoption of any legislative measure.”

The report suggested the two Houses of Parliament would differ because “the instincts of the Assembly would be movement — progress — innovation. 

The instincts of the more conservative body will be caution — deliberation — resistance to change if not fairly and fully proved to be beneficial.”

So what has changed since 1856? Is the “democratic spirit” of new or past governments any less in need of periodic checking or review? 

Is there any less need to guard against “hasty and inconsiderate” legislation?

Some suggest this need no longer exist. The majority of Tasmanians, through their actions participating in our democratic processes, have indicated they wish this scrutiny to continue.

To suggest that four opposition party members in a house of 15 members could become “the de facto government” as suggested by some lacks mathematical reality and shows a lack of regard for, and an understanding of, our treasured democracy.

These comments insult voters suggesting that in Legislative Council elections they don’t appreciate the importance of their vote and get it wrong but these same voters get it right in House of Assembly elections.

Whether we like the result or not, voters are always right.

When I entered the Legislative Council in 2005 the Labor government had five MPs in the council, one could suggest an ideal time to push through to get a majority if the desire was to abolish it.

Perhaps I wasn’t listening, but apart from the odd call for the abolition of the Legislative Council that occurs from time to time when a contentious issue divides our community and some inevitably holding the view that the Legislative Council made the wrong decision, I heard no such criticism, particularly not from within the Legislative Council.

Rather there have been more voices proclaiming support for the democratic process we hold dear. 

“Thank goodness we have a Legislative Council” resonates at these times around the state. 

The Legislative Council when presented with legislation needs to ensure it will achieve the stated policy objective, question whether the policy is supported by credible evidence and consider whether adequate consultation with stakeholders has occurred, to enable informed decisions.

The Legislative Council has done its job as a house of review, and done it well, for over 160 years.

Of course, there have been, and will continue to be, levels of frustration when some government legislation or policy is rejected.

This is not new.

The fact any government has to work hard to gain the necessary support is an important aspect of our democracy.

Appropriate checks and balances make for better outcomes. 

This has been achieved predominantly through amendment, not rejection, of legislation.

Every election is fought and won or lost on publicised policy positions from all parties.

To suggest any one policy has total support and should not be subject to a robust and appropriate parliamentary process that the people of Tasmania have elected us to do, is an insult to all Tasmanians.

I accept that not all Tasmanians are politically engaged but the vast majority do vote and most make an informed and considered decision. 

To suggest these people do not know what they are doing is naive and disrespectful.

Many voters express the knowledge that the Legislative Council will provide a check and balance on any government and cast their vote in House of Assembly elections safe in this knowledge.


Ruth Forrest MLC is the Independent Member for Murchison.

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