THE resignation of MLC Allison Ritchie is a sad end to a brief ministerial career. However, the fact that this brings to five the number of fallen ministers since the last election is just another signal that Tasmania’s current political system is broke and no wunderkind makeover is going to fix it.
Oscar Wilde noted (in the voice of Lady Bracknell from The Importance of Being Earnest) “to lose one parent … may be regarded as misfortune, to lose both looks like carelessness.” To lose five ministers is serial political suicide.
While these travails look bad for Labor, it would be a mistake for the Liberals or Greens to see any particular advantage in it. The loss of Allison Ritchie should draw sympathy for the frailty of the human condition, while that of Green, Kons, Wriedt and Lennon show moral weakness and lack of judgement, both political and personal. It would be hubris to assume these faults are Labor’s alone; they are endemic to a small political system.
While not tainted by ten years of power, Will Hodgman could also face a serious challenge, with only six ministers-in-training and only one opposition member with ministerial experience in Sue Napier. A credible political alternative requires creative solutions.
The solution is to broaden the pool from which ministers are selected and to ensure that there is a proving ground that enables a Premier to see whether a potential minister has the ‘right stuff’ to serve the Crown at the highest level. What constitutes the ‘right stuff’ appears to differ by Premier. For Lennon it appeared to be loyalty before competence or integrity, which is why the buck ultimately stopped with him.
Bartlett’s first attempt to broaden the pool by extending ministries to the legislative council (beyond the prior ministerially experienced Michael Aird) has been shown to be a weak quick fix. This is not surprising as he passed over the potential minister with the most experience and credibility in Terry Martin. Bartlett should learn from Lennon’s flaws before they become his own. Loyalty is no substitute for competence or experience.
Expanding the Parliament to 35 is a long-term solution, but it will not guarantee Bartlett, Hodgman or McKim can form a stable cabinet after the next election.
Successful ministers can either be drafted from an outside career involving leadership and senior management, or they must learn through their junior years in Parliament. Recruiting a prospective ministerial team to run is a potential solution. However, without the ‘safe seats’ that make external recruitment a viable solution at the federal level — witness the meteoric rise of Malcolm Turnbull and senior Labor unionists like Greg Combet — this is a hard leadership call for a Tasmanian leader. The Hare-Clarke system has the wonderful feature that individual parliamentarians must fight as hard against members of their own party to get elected as they do against opposing parties. Any Liberal or Labor member that supports the recruitment of a ‘star’ does so at the risk of their own seat. The Greens don’t yet follow this approach, which is perhaps appropriate for a minority, but is not healthy if they want to maintain their democratic instincts should they grow much larger. Parliamentarians should be determined by the people, not the party machine.
Changing to a 35-seat situation creates a window of opportunity for recruiting new talent to the Tasmanian political system without challenging the seats of incumbents. The Cabinet and the performance of the executive are enhanced by external recruitment, but the representative and democratic character of the legislature is not.
Across the waters in America we are witnessing a completely different approach to building a competent cabinet. President-Elect Obama is building a cabinet based on merit and the ability to face the challenges of his first term. There is some repayment of political loyalty, and party allegiance is a factor, but it is not constrained by membership of the legislature. Obama is able to employ experts to address the economic crisis, not politicians.
The precedent of making MLC ministers face questions in the lower house could also apply to ministers (or cabinet-level secretaries leading departments) appointed from outside of parliament. The Legislative Council’s grilling of recent appointment processes demonstrates a capacity to perform this role on an ongoing basis, reviewing and approving non-parliamentarian cabinet appointments in the same way as the United States Senate. This review process should also extend to judicial nominations and appointments, ensuring that the Kons-Cooper fiasco is never repeated.
The extension of this logic is that ministers should never be drawn from the Legislative Council and that the council should also have the power to appoint an independent special prosecutor to investigate and prosecute corruption as required, thus avoiding the need for a specific commission against corruption. The main criticism of a permanent ICAC-like body is that it becomes bored and investigates minutiae; the fundamental problem with the current system is the government denies corruption exists when it is staring it in the face. Enabling a clear process for the Legislative Council to launch an investigative process, which then become independent, is a balanced and cost effective approach.
A 35 member house would also enable experienced ministers like Michael Aird to return to the lower house, although not strictly necessary if an outside appointment process is created.
A more US-style system would also enable Tasmania to address the most crushing defect in its political system, the phobia of the majority against minority government.
The problem of this phobia is not whether one believes that minority government is good or bad, but the way that fear of minority government impacts political competition between the Labor and Liberal parties. The competition becomes not one of who is honest, or competent, or has the best policies, but who is in the best position to form a majority, a competition in which the incumbent government has a clear advantage, irrespective of previous performance.
One might conjecture that the disproportionate swing of ‘undecided’ voters to Labor, whilst Greens are under-represented, is an element of the majority vote swinger phenomena. Those who vote Green don’t care about minority government (or in fact are voting for it), those who care about majority government stay undecided and swing to the winner in the last days of the campaign. While these voters coronated a Paul Lennon majority in 2006, after a campaign focused on majority government, they could equally coronate a majority for the Liberal leader if the final polls favour the Liberals, just as they did for Robin Gray in the 1980s.
A Governor, directly elected by Tasmanians, could always form a majority government. The government can be guaranteed supply, with respect to the collection of taxation revenues, payment of departmental and other operating budgets and previously approved capital programs. He or she would then need the support of the legislature to change the law, raise taxes or new spending. An elected-Governor could also appoint a cabinet of his or her choosing, seeking the approval of the Legislative Council where such cabinet members have not been elected to the House of Assembly. All Cabinet members would be subject to questioning in the lower house.
The Office of the Governor currently costs Tasmania around $3.3 million, including more than $400,000 for the Governor himself. For an office supposedly focused on ‘safeguarding the integrity of the State’s democratic system of government’ recent events, not to mention lingering memories of the Butler fiasco, makes one ask: are we getting value for money? Can Tasmania afford a purely ceremonial gubernatorial sinecure in the midst of global economic and recurring Tasmanian political crises?
Why the affection for a Westminster system which clearly doesn’t work? Why not directly elect a Governor who then has a mandate to lead?
The Labor government has lost the mandate to govern, but a new election is more likely to foment more constitutional crisis than resolve it. Instead of debating the problems of our government, we should push for solutions to resolve them. To this end all the institutions are there in the current structure, the Governor, the Cabinet, the House of Assembly and the Legislative Council, but how they work together must change radically. Westminster is dead; it’s time to end Cabinet amateur night.
Why the affection for a Westminster system which clearly doesn’t work? Why not directly elect a Governor who then has a mandate to lead? The Labor government has lost the mandate to govern, but a new election is more likely to foment more constitutional crisis than resolve it. Instead of debating the problems of our government, we should push for solutions to resolve them. To this end all the institutions are there in the current structure, the Governor, the Cabinet, the House of Assembly and the Legislative Council, but how they work together must change radically.