Mayday: Time for fresh ideas in the Upper House
By Tom Baxter, Greens candidate for Nelson
Our election campaign for the Tasmanian Upper House seat of Nelson is underway, launched with Nick McKim, family and friends on Sunday 20 January.
In this article I summarise the need for change in the Legislative Council, key election issues, Upper House obstacles, Nelson candidates, and how you can help win this pivotal seat on 4 May.
The need for change
Surviving and thriving this century requires the ability to face and adapt to change on many levels. Climate change and the plight of Tasmania’s forestry industry are but two examples.
Accordingly, we need MPs who can respond to the challenges of change, and reflect contemporary community values.
The recent recalcitrance of our Upper House makes its its three elections on 4 May 2013 a choice between clinging to Tasmania’s past or embracing its future.
Key election issues
At stake are one-off opportunities to secure this year key legislation blocked or delayed by the Upper House, such as for:
- Marriage equality.
- The forest roundtable agreement.
- The return of Aboriginal land at Larapuna (the Eddystone Point lighthouse site) and at Rebecca Creek in the Tarkine.
- Political donation reform.
Community concern over the Upper House also provides impetus to pursue reform of it. Other reforms which the Greens have long championed, eg dying with dignity and improving sustainable transport options, are also needed.
To achieve these reforms, and more, we need to replace at least the member for Nelson, Jim Wilkinson MLC, at this one-in-six-year election opportunity. Let me explain.
Excessive power – the most powerful Upper House in Australia
Tasmania’s Upper House has greater powers than any other in Australia. Particularly objectionable is its power to block the State Budget, forcing a Lower House election, without itself facing the people at the election it causes.
This systemic flaw gives our Upper House excessive power over the Lower House (of Government). Were the Upper House to take the radical step of blocking supply, its members should have the courage of their convictions and also face the people.
Read more about this Tasmanian problem and reforms to solve it in my launch media release.
Current Legislative Council 'Independents' are very conservative
Tasmania's single member Upper House’s electorates make it much less representative of the diversity of community opinion than our more representative (due to its Hare-Clark electoral system) House of Assembly.
For example, Dr Kevin Bonham’s November 2012 analysis of “Legislative Council voting patterns since the last Lower House election” found, among other matters, that despite unpredictable voting ‘the Legislative Council has a "conservative" lean with all members bar possibly one voting to the right of the sole Labor MLC, Craig Farrell.’
Dr Bonham categorised MLCs Goodwin, Wilkinson, Hall and Armitage as forming what he calls the "main conservative" cluster (MCC), joined at times by Paul Harriss MLC.
Dr Bonham also found that ‘The highest [voting] agreement percentages were 88 for Forrest-Valentine (very limited data - 8/9) and Farrell-Gaffney, 81 for Goodwin-Wilkinson and Wilkinson-Hall and 80 for Hall-Armitage.’
Legislative Council obstructionism in 2012
The above helps explain why the Upper House often acts a conservative one-way valve. It passed legislation such as the 40% MPs’ pay-rise, slashing Parliament’s numbers in an effort to get rid of the Greens, and the attempt to fast-track Gunns’ pulp mill. But when progressive reform comes up from the Lower House, the Upper House more often acts as a blockage.
For example, last year alone the Upper House rejected the Greens-led Same-Sex Marriage Bill and the bill to ban political donations by tobacco companies. It postponed, by sending to committees, bills passed by the Lower House to implement the forest agreement and return Larapuna (the Eddystone Point lighthouse site) and land at Rebecca Creek in the Tarkine to the Aboriginal Land Council of Tasmania.
The respected Kerry Finch MLC described the Legislative Council’s forestry committee as "wrecking" – he should know. It risks the best chance we have to reserve iconic, high conservation value public forests and secure hundreds of millions in Commonwealth transition funding which Tasmania so desperately needs.
The Land Council’s Chairman, Clyde Mansell, said the land return was disappointing and "they're jumping at shadows”.
The Land Council signed a 40-year lease for Larapuna in 2006. It plans to develop a tourism venture on the site providing guided tours of the area and cultural activities. Imagine the outcry over such governmental delay if it were a commercial tourism developer!
Last year the current member for Nelson, Jim Wilkinson MLC, joined narrow Upper House majorities and the Liberal Party in opposing the Lower House bills for marriage equality (rejected 8 votes to 6) and the forest peace agreement (when the Upper House split 7-all on a ‘knife-edge’)1.
In refusing to share the love, or give peace a chance, I do not believe he reflected the majority view of the Nelson community in which I live and work. Mr Wilkinson may know this too, as the Sunday Tasmanian of 27 January reported:
“He has a new website for the first time in 18 years and has employed high-flying public relations company FONT PR.”
The same article reported that "highly credentialed corporate governance lecturer and former lawyer Tom Baxter is the endorsed candidate for the Greens” and “Labor will not be putting up an endorsed candidate after failing to get any nominations for the job”.
Instead, a woman “with strong Labor ties” is expected to run as ‘Independent’ in Nelson, as former Labor Minister Alison Ritchie is doing in Pembroke. This raises a further issue.
Endorsed party candidates vs 'Independents'
Running endorsed Greens candidates offers voters a clear, transparent choice, and a comprehensive set of policies unmatched by any Independent. But it is used against us in elections for Tasmania’s Upper House by those who argue that it should remain dominated by notional “Independents”.
Dr Bonham’s work and 2012 disappointments show how such Independents operate in our Upper House. So we need to point out what will be a recurring theme this year – the value of parties openly and honestly endorsing candidates, so that voters can assess policies in advance and see party allegiances transparently set out on their ballot paper.
That compares to the opaque unpredictability in running as a pseudo-Independent. For example, in April 2007 the member for Nelson opposed Paul Lennon’s Pulp Mill Assessment Bill. He was re-elected for six years in May, then voted for the Pulp Mill Permit in August 2007. Go figure!
We need accountability, consistency, renewal and fresh ideas in the Upper House. The May 4 elections are our opportunity to achieve these. Or, as the Sunday Tasmanian concluded:
"... all the work on [the Labor Labor-Green Government’s] social reform agenda this year will mean nothing if the Upper House doesn't change come May."
Legislative Council election campaign laws include a number of monopolistic barriers to entry which serve to protect incumbents with name recognition. These include, for example, bans on election expenditure except by a candidate or their agent and naming candidates without their written consent in ‘any advertisement, “how to vote” card, handbill, pamphlet, poster or notice’ between the issue of the writ (Wednesday 3 April 2013) and the close of voting.
I am funding the campaign myself, but need more supporters to join our fantastic team! You can get involved by:
- Volunteering your time.
- Connect with me via Facebook, Twitter or my campaign website.
- Sign-up for campaign updates.
I look forward to your support!
Here are two interesting opinion pieces on the Pembroke and Nelson Upper House elections, including analysis of the candidates and their prospects:
>> Labor's poll problems
For detailed analyses of recent voting patterns and arguments used in our Upper House, well-worth reading are Dr Bonham’s:
1. Chair of the Upper House Committee now considering the forest agreement bill, Paul Harriss MLC, told local ABC radio on 18 January that Upper House numbers had been “on a knife edge” in December at 7-all.