Image for Political gymnastics down at the Mercury, Libs and Labor HQ’s

A Mercury backflip has prompted the Liberal Party then Labor to ditch their support for increasing the size of the Tasmanian House of Assembly to 35 members.

Back in September 2010 the Mercury editorialised (HERE) in support of the proposal to expand the House of Assembly to 35 seats from the current 25.

“The 12-year experiment with a truncated State Parliament has been disastrous. At times it has produced almost dysfunctional government. Oppositions have been tiny and weak. Governments themselves have so few MPs that they lack a competitive edge. The choice of talent for cabinets has been too small, ministers have been forced to handle too many portfolios and have had to rely too much on staff and bureaucrats. The number of ministerial advisers and spin doctors has increased by 82 per cent,” the editorial opined.

The additional cost - which it cited as $3 million—the editorial insisted was “a drop in the ocean of the State Budget, a small price to pay for a more effective opposition, greater scrutiny of legislation and the executive, a better choice of ministers and a more robust political life.” As an offset the editorial supported a reduction in the number of local councils and government spin doctors.

A little less than two months later in her weekly analysis column The Mercury’s chief political reporter, Sue Neales, (HERE) championed the case for the forced amalgamations of local government given the decision to expand the House of Assembly. “If more MPs are needed to run the state properly and we have certainly seen the sorry signs over the past four years of what happens when ministerial talent pools get too small surely it can be argued that fewer councils and councillors could offset the enlarged parliament?, she wrote.

In her column she noted that, when opposed to increasing the size of the House of Assembly, Bartlett had claimed the cost of the change at $12 million rather than the $3 million figure cited after the three parties agreed to the change.

Fast forward until last Saturday when the Mercury’s front page screamed “Amid fears of a $1.5b debt and huge job cuts, Lara Giddings wants to spend $12m on MORE POLLIES”. (The online version was a little more subdued: “Cuts but $12m for pollies”.) Sue Neales story reported that “Tasmania is likely to have 10 more politicians costing an extra $12 million a year within three years, despite the financial crisis confronting the state.” Of course the cost and decision to expand parliament were not news, but the government’s release of the bleak budget forecasts and pledge to cut public servants was. However, predictions of significant budget shortfalls were being made late last year, including in the Mercury, such as by member of the Legislative Councilor Ruth Forrest.

In Neales’s story last Saturday, Unions Tasmania secretary Kevin Harkins complained that increasing the size of parliament when cuts were on the table was “lunacy”. But where both Neales and The Mercury’s editorial had previously expressed concern about the impacts of the current smaller parliament on the quality of Tasmania’s democracy, articulating the need for the change was left to the defensive and seemingly self-interested comments of Giddings. No non-parliamentary supporters of expanding the parliament made the cut.

Not surprisingly, within days the Liberals had done their own backflip (HERE), arguing that “in our view supporting the jobs of teachers and nurses and police officers that our now under threat as a result of Lara Giddings’ commitment to slash the public sector.” Rather lamely, Hodgman claimed that increasing the size of the House of Assembly was the right policy but now just the “wrong time”. The one time champion of cutting government expenditure is now trying to position himself as the sincere defender of public servants.

Within hours of Hodgman’s backflip, Giddings too hoisted the white flag (HERE). “It was not Labor Party policy,” she argued, pointing the finger instead at the Liberals and the Greens.

The circle is complete. Back in 1998 Labor, the Liberals and the Mercury all championed cutting the parliament down to 25 members. Over the next twelve years all came to grudgingly concede that, not only had it failed in its primary political purpose of obliterating the Greens, but that it had also done great damage to the quality of Tasmania’s democracy.

Now, just four months after having agreed to support expanding the parliament, Labor, the Liberals and The Mercury are more or less back where they were in 1998. The Liberals have indicated they may support expanding the parliament when the state’s finances are better. Giddings has opted for a “me too” on the Liberals new policy.

With the latest policy twists, the earliest likely expansion of the House of Assembly would be the 2018 election. Even if it is expanded to 35 seats then, it is likely to be at least several years before an influx of additional members starts to make any appreciable difference to the composition and quality of the Cabinet and Shadow Cabinet. While the current positions of the Liberals and Labor have been cast in terms of Tasmania’s current financial difficulties, the reality is that Tasmania is likely to have to struggle along for the best part of another decade with the current 25 member House of Assembly.

Perhaps in the next few days the Mercury will pen another editorial on the topic. One can only suspect that any suggestion that the last 12 years experiment has been “disastrous” and produced “almost dysfunctional government” and “tiny and weak” oppositions will be consigned to the rubbish bin.

Instead, if there is anything at all, we are likely to be informed that a quality democracy is a luxury we just can’t afford.