FOLLOWING THE Tasmanian election on Saturday, where no one party won a majority of seats, a coalition government between one of the state’s major parties and the Greens is essential if the state is to be governed well.
With its previous complement of fourteen members (minus one to fill the role of Speaker), the Labor Party was barely able to form a viable ministry.
When a minister left office, it was difficult to find someone with the talent and/or experience to take his or her place.
This made the Government even less reluctant than usual to sack incompetent, disgraced or embarrassing ministers.
On top of this, there was virtually no backbench to keep ministers focussed on shifts in community opinion or shifts away from party policy.
The Government had to turn to Upper House members to make up the numbers.
But under the archaic rules of Tasmania’s Upper House, these members are not subject to anything like the scrutiny and electoral accountability of Lower House MPs.
Upper House question time is a relaxed affair so unnoticed by the outside world that Upper House ministers have begun to attend Lower House question time instead.
Upper House elections also slip by unnoticed. The chamber is never dissolved and never faces a general election, instead electing its members through a system of annual, rotating and highly localised electorate-by-electorate polls.
Besides, there are just too few party-aligned members of the Upper House (currently three Labor and one Liberal) to ease the burden on Lower House members and broaden the ministerial talent pool sufficiently.
My insight into the Government’s problems came in my role as a gay rights lobbyist.
Too often ministers overloaded with too many portfolios and huge departments would be so tired they were in danger of falling off their chair, or too distracted to sit still in it.
Important decisions was either made in a rush, or inordinately delayed, by the demands of too much work.
Inevitably many major decisions fell to un-elected advisors or senior public servants who, in the absence of guidance from their minister, would opt for the safest course.
Other problems caused by this overload included the sidelining of small but still important portfolios like social inclusion or women’s issues, and potential conflict between portfolios – for example the minister for agriculture, energy and resources should not be in charge of the planning system, as has been the case in recent years.
What my direct experience says to me is that it is simply impossible for the state to be governed by the ten members each major party can expect to have when the state election result is finalised.
One solution is to return Parliament to a viable size.
In 1998 the major parties combined to reduce the size of the Lower House from 35 to 25 members, ostensibly to reduce costs, actually to squeeze out the Greens.
Neither goal was achieved. The cost of high-paid ministerial minders has spiralled. The Greens are now more influential than ever.
Meanwhile the Tasmanian Government continues to look more like a local council than the administration of an entire island society, inspiring some commentators, including Greg Barnes, to revive the idea of amalgamating Tasmania and Victoria – an idea many Tasmanians, including myself, find absolutely abhorrent.
In the name of better government, it’s time to re-instate a Parliament large enough to do Tasmania justice.
But even if there is the political will to do this, it will take time.
In the meanwhile, the only answer for the problems I’ve outlined is for one of the major parties to form a coalition with the Greens, bringing their five members into ministerial contention.
Those powerful interests that have previously opposed any Green influence on Tasmanian economic, environmental and social policy will probably respond by declaring the Greens too radical or irresponsible to hold government posts.
But surely the best way to foster responsibility and moderacy among the Green is to bring them into decision-making, not exclude them from it.
Liberal leader, Will Hodgman, ruled out giving Greens Cabinet posts before the election, but seems to have softened his stance now that Liberal Government seems like a good possibility.
Labor leader, David Bartlett, has not softened his opposition to an agreement with the Greens, I assume because he expects any Liberal/ Green agreement to fall apart and for Labor to be the beneficiary from this.
Even Green leader, Nick McKim, is coy about the issue, I assume because he wants to allay lingering fears about the Greens having “too much” influence.
But the issue of a coalition government goes beyond the interests of political leaders and their parties.
It is in the best interests of all Tasmanians to have a government that is large and talented enough to allow ministers to make informed, considered and accountable decisions.
In the current circumstances that can only happen if the Greens and a major party form a coalition government.