Published: 07 April 2021

WHILE an early election was not unexpected, few expected such an indecent and a disingenuous rush to the ballot box. The signs had been there for weeks, a government clearing the decks, with promised legislation related to key election issues of political donations and pokies nowhere to be seen.

The Premier has led a stable government over the most challenging 12 months in recent history but now claims he needs certainty as he has lost his majority in the House, despite commitments of confidence and supply from crossbenchers.

Despite the challenging times, the government has continued to be stable and operate well, albeit with the defeat of some of its legislation, legislation that would have faced almost certain defeat in the Legislative Council — thus the same outcome.

Legislative Council elections are held the first Saturday in May every year for two or three of the 15 divisions. The independence of the Legislative Council has not only been maintained but also highly valued for over 160 years. Until 2020 there has never been a majority of party-affiliated members and it has never been controlled by the government of the day.

Legislative provisions provide for deferral to another Saturday in May such as in a conflict with a federal election. While this is not the case with a House of Assembly election, the Premier had no lack of non-conflicting Saturdays.

For the first time in parliament’s history, the Premier chose May 1, a day that gives his candidates in Legislative Council elections a distinct advantage.

Legislative Council candidates have a strict spending limit. This year the limit is $18,000. A return must be lodged with the Returning Officer after the election recording all election-related expenditure. This means TV advertising is beyond almost all candidates, however, party candidates have the benefit of their party advertising for the House of Assembly. The same applies to mailouts and newspaper and online ads.

There appears to be no mechanism to attribute cost to the vicarious benefit gained through appearances with the premier, opposition leader or any sitting member during the campaign. Additional publicity for the party candidate is a clear benefit to their campaign and not afforded to an independent candidate. This is exacerbated when premier, opposition leader or other sitting member is contesting an election on the same day.

Calling a May 1 election means Legislative Council elections have been become even more politicised, creating enormous disadvantages for independents whose appeal for the need for sensible review of legislation will be drowned out by the overhyped need for stable government.

The distinct roles of each house cannot be understated. House of Assembly elections are contested on a policy basis to form the government of the day, while Legislative Council elections are contested to select members for the house of review whose primary function is to hold government to account.

The timing may be convenient for the Premier but spare a thought for long-serving independent member for Windermere, Ivan Dean, who is retiring. Mr Dean will not even be afforded the opportunity to make a valedictory speech in parliament, despite his years of service and decision to leave at a time of his choosing, as the last sitting week of his term of 16 years will now not proceed.

It is vital the independence of the Legislative Council is maintained to truly act as a house of review, particularly as there will be major legislation after the election. I have confidence in the electors to appreciate the value of independence and role of each House. However, to deliberately tilt the playing field against independents is an appalling overuse of power.

The claim for a need for stability and certainty to justify an early election is skimpy and unconvincing at best. Under Hare-Clarke, we are very unlikely to see anything like the Western Australia election.

The other casualty is the immediate cessation of all parliamentary committees. All will need to be re-established when parliament resumes. This can take several weeks, sometimes months. Scheduled hearings are all cancelled and no further deliberations on reports can be undertaken. The Inquiry into Rural Health Services had scheduled about 20 witnesses to give evidence. These will now not be held for three to four months.

Current inquiries including TasWater, Fin Fish, Disability Services and Greater Hobart Traffic Congestion are affected. Joint House committees, including the Public Accounts Committee’s work, also cease and the important inquiry into the economic and health expenditure response to COVID-19 will now be unable to report for several months.

With the election called almost a year earlier than expected, committees had no opportunity to release reports ahead of the election.

Data related to the impact on employment and economy as a result of JobKeeper ending will conveniently not be available until after the election.

What’s the point of stability if the uniformity and mediocrity of the party system keeps suppressing the overwhelming need for more diversity and new ideas?

The Mercury, Friday 2 April 2021

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