Council of the wise

The best way to explain the Tasmanian parliamentary system to newcomers is to say that it’s like the federal parliament, only the other way round – single-member districts in the upper house, with multi-member electorates chosen by proportional representation in the lower. Of the many important features that this glosses over, perhaps the most significant is the unique system of annual elections for upper house seats held on the first Sunday of each May, at which either two or three of the 15 districts go up for election on a rotation system. This year is the turn of Apsley, a rural seat covering the north-east corner of the state, and Elwick, in the northern suburbs of Hobart.

The system by which the Council is selected is consistent with old-fashioned notions that a rolling mandate for the upper house, combined with longer terms (six years in this case) and a restricted franchise (only properly eliminated with the abolition of rural vote weighting in 1997), would provide a check against whichever libertine passions happened to be consuming the mob on the day the lower house was elected. It was thought that the result would be an independent and conservative counterweight to the government of the day, and in this respect it can only be said to have been a great success. Much of this is due to the Liberal party’s long-standing, highly unusual and very astute convention of not running endorsed candidates. The Poll Bludger is not foolish enough to imagine that any political behaviour can be explained in terms of ethical principles, and has no doubt that the Liberal tactic is based on a calculation that conservative independents are more likely than endorsed Liberals to defeat Labor candidates. Given that Labor’s representation hovered between one and two for many years up to the 1990s, the wisdom of this approach has been self-evident. Furthermore, Labor’s ascendancy in Tasmania over the years has been such that unpredictable behaviour from the Council during rare periods of Liberal government has seemed an acceptable trade-off.

The past decade has seen an improvement in Labor’s representation and a short-lived and unsuccessful attempt by the Liberals to get in on the action. Ignoring the lessons of history, the Liberals first attempted to abolish the Council in 1997, and then decided to field candidates in 2000 when this failed. Both their candidates performed disastrously, with one running third behind the Greens, and the Liberals have not repeated the error since. Labor on the other hand increased its numbers from two to five between 1995 and 2001 (or six if including Labor independent Silvia Smith, who held the federal seat of Bass for the party from 1993 to 1996) in a house which shrank from 19 members to 15 during the same period. Labor has been assisted here by the smaller number of larger electorates, which require more resources for effective campaiging and thus favour party machines over independents, as well as the abolition of rural vote weighting. The outcome has had a lot to do with the liberalisation of the Council’s attitudes, with the government needing the support of only a small number of independents to pass gay law reforms and liberalise Sunday trading.

However, recent history suggests the May 2001 elections were Labor’s high-water mark, and that next month’s elections need to be viewed in this context. In that year Labor’s Allison Ritchie succeeded in ousting independent Cathy Edwards from Pembroke in large part due to her successful attacks upon Edwards’ dual role as Mayor of Clarence, a not uncommon practice in the Council. That led excitable folk in the party to talk openly of a possible Labor majority two elections hence, and to promote the effort by having MP Fran Bladel resign from her lower house seat to stand against independent incumbent Paul Harriss in Huon. It seems obvious in hindsight that this threat to the chamber’s cherished independence would provoke an electoral backlash, and so it proved. Harriss was comfortably re-elected, Labor’s other candidate in Rosevears scored 8.3 per cent, and the following year saw Silvia Smith easily defeated in Windermere by conservative independent Ivan Dean.

Some idea of the impact of these results, as well as what’s at stake on May 1, can be discerned from the following table noting the percentage of occasions on which the various independent members voted with the Labor members (who voted en bloc on each occasion) during the 36 divisions which have taken place in the Council since the May 2002 elections.

# % expiry
Norma Jamieson 2/11 18% 2009
Ivan Dean 1/11 9% 2009
Kerry Finch 10/17 59% 2008
Paul Harriss 2/36 6% 2008
Sue Smith 11/34 32% 2007
Jim Wilkinson 14/34 41% 2007
Greg Hall 16/36 44% 2006
Don Wing 2/14 14% 2005
Tony Fletcher 4/36 11% 2005
Colin Rattray 19/36 53% 2004
Sylvia Smith 19/25 76% 2003
Geoff Squibb 5/21 24% 2003

Some points of clarification: Silvia Smith and Geoff Squibb are italicised because they are no longer members, Squibb having been defeated by Norma Jamieson in the 2003 election for Mersey. Don Wing has participated in markedly fewer divisions than his colleagues as he has been Council President since early 2002, and the Poll Bludger has not taken the trouble to record his exercise of the casting vote.

Reporting in March 2002 on the government’s efforts to secure the numbers on the contentious issue of Sunday trading, Martine Haley of The Mercury reported that senior Labor figures believed outgoing Apsley member Colin Rattray was "the only truly independent MLC in the Legislative Council". The figures above suggest this is a bit rough on Kerry Finch, Greg Hall and Jim Wilkinson, who respectively voted with Labor in 59, 44 and 41 per cent of divisions in which they participated, compared with Rattray’s 53 per cent. While the others are independent in their way and show little resembling party discipline, it would not be unreasonable to group them together as the Council Opposition. Ivan Dean was Liberal enough to get a phone call from John Howard in February begging him to contest federal preselection for Bass, and he has only voted with Labor on one occasion. Tony Fletcher rarely votes with Labor and holds conservative views on same-sex adoption and abortion. Relative newcomer Norma Jamieson’s record so far, particularly on gay adoption and poker machines, suggests her to be within the Council’s socially conservative tradition. Don Wing on the other hand is a former Liberal Party director who appears to have fallen out with the Tasmanian party’s ascendant right faction, being vocal in his criticism of the party’s disendorsement of small-"l" Liberal (and now Australian Democrat) Greg Barns. Sue Smith may be a borderline case, although in the lead-up to her bid for re-election in 2002 Labor used a reference she had sent to Liberal preselectors on behalf of a Senate candidate to cast her as a "closet Liberal".

Accepting this slightly arbitrary classification, the house thus has five government members, six of the opposition (including the Council President) and four independents. The election on May 1 will see one Labor member and one Labor-friendly independent vacate their seats. Nominations closed Thursday and the list of candidates is available for all to behold at the Tasmanian Electoral Commission. The Poll Bludger will take a closer look at these campaigns and who’s involved in them closer to the big day.