Published: 11 August 2020

Tasmanians don’t need a return to schoolyard brawling at such a time in our history.

For the first time in Tasmania, the Legislative Council is likely to have a majority of party affiliated members after the elections in Rosevears and Huon divisions.

Nothing to worry about according to the Premier, that’s democracy at work. Effective democracy however requires eternal vigilance.

Since 1856 the Legislative Council has been a house of review with a majority of independents scrutinising the decisions of government. Long regarded as a conservative bulwark against progress and a place for semi-retirees, the last decade has seen change as independent members pushed for and established an expanded committee system.

While party members have not resisted the changes, they haven’t actively promoted them. Nor have they stood in the way of inquiries.

I grow weary of hearing the claims that all views are canvassed and debated vigorously in party rooms. We only have their word for that and the reality is different as outcomes follow the party position. This is no substitute for open, transparent debate and decision making on the floor of the parliament.

In my experience party members have as diverse a range of opinions as the rest of us. The reality is, the existence of party members in the Legislative Council tends to stifle debate as party members follow the party line rather than air the views of their constituents. Party members rarely all speak on Bills. One, if any, will speak on a Bill, often saying substantive comments have already been made in the House of Assembly. That is not the way a house of review should operate. Democracy in action requires a diversity of opinions in the scrutiny of government decisions.

I tried to imagine how a committee system would work if there were equal numbers of affiliated party members and I was the last independent. Government members wouldn’t be interested in inquiring into areas of potential embarrassment for the government. Opposition members would be more inclined to try to uncover government misdeeds rather than appraising policy for the benefit of all Tasmanians. It would be a pointless stalemate.

Party politics is focused in the House of Assembly, where government is formed and policy decisions promoted and progressed through legislative reform. The Legislative Council does not have the same media presence because our role is different but vital to a functioning democracy. Vive la difference.

Tasmania is at the crossroads. The pandemic has revealed the state’s problems and demonstrated effective decision making through a nonpartisan approach.

If we return to the old tribal ways where two parties bedecked in team colours fight each other, we are doomed. Independents have a crucial role assisting with politically unpopular discussion. They add legitimacy to a debate which will be needed if we are to make progress beyond the schoolyard brawling of modern party politics.

We need these debates for the benefit of all Tasmanians. Scrutiny of government budgets and decisions is achieved when done without fear or favour. Party members are locked into the party position regardless of their views. Independent members can keep an open mind when scrutinising legislation and budget priorities, free to alter their position if influenced by the strength of debate.

The Legislative Council, through scrutiny, rarely rejects government legislation. Rather, legislation is improved as inappropriate or unworkable measures are addressed. This does not attract media attention. We work without grandstanding in hi-vis vest and hard hats.

The Legislative Council has an important role in holding the government to account. It is incumbent on all seven independents, including myself, to educate the public about our role. Eternal vigilance is our responsibility to ensure effective democracy prevails.

The Mercury Tuesday 11 August, 2020

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