The Legislative Council chamber in Tasmania’s Parliament House – originally the Customs House – is an anachronism.
Seemingly little has changed under its high, ornate ceiling in more than 160 years, yet it’s greatest tradition is about to come crashing down.
The near-certain election of two new members, both from major parties, will end the monopoly of the independents.
For many, this is something to bemoan, believing that it’s been to the benefit of Tasmania’s democracy that the upper house has, until now, always had a majority of non-aligned members.
The argument goes that to function best as a house of review it takes independents unencumbered by a party line who are able to consider draft legislation on its merits.
There is, of course, another side to this.
Independent members don’t approach each bill with open minds like jurors are expected to when considering a case. They tend, as you would expect of politicians, to hold opinions; a lot of opinions.
When their voting records are examined it is possible to objectively classify where each sits on the political spectrum. That is, left or right; or more aligned with, or opposed to, the government of the day.
But the independent members don’t generally come under much scrutiny for their votes on the more contentious issues.
This is due to their six-year terms, alternating elections, and a less engaged voting public than for House of Assembly ballots.
Another downside to so many independents in the small Tasmanian Parliament is they make it harder to find frontbenchers.
Governments have a small backbench from which to draw ministers, and oppositions have, since the reduction in the size of the House of Assembly, generally given all of their MPs shadow responsibilities.
It is not helpful for good governance to have “upstairs” a gaggle of MPs who effectively rule themselves out of contention for ministries by virtue of their independence.
This scarcity of talent for promotion to the frontbench is arguably a greater problem for Tasmania than the independents losing their majority in the upper house.
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