Is it time to curb powers of Tasmania's Upper House?



June 19, 2017 19:10:25

As Tasmania’s Upper House prepares to pass the state budget, questions have been raised about an extraordinary power it retains to block the legislation.

The Legislative Council, which is approaching a two-century milestone, is historically dominated by independents.

Members are elected through staggered polls, held each year, with terms of six years and last month’s poll saw Labor gain a third seat.

The Legislative Council has the power to block the passing of a budget, which would trigger an election of Lower House members.

“As Upper Houses go, it’s extraordinarily powerful,” political scientist Richard Eccleston said.

“I think Tasmanians want to have a house of review that holds governments to account. But clearly it’s important to avoid deadlocks and standoffs that can really paralyse government.”

The Upper House will consider the 2017-18 budget this week.

Legislative Council president, Nelson MLC Jim Wilkinson, was part of a committee in the late 1990s which examined the council’s power to block a budget.

“I was part of the group that said it shouldn’t be there. It’s only ever been endeavoured to be used once, back in 1921,” he said.

“If it’s never been used, why use it? That’s one argument. The second [argument] is, it’s unfair for the Upper House to be able to block a budget, send a Lower House to an election and sit back and be an audience without being sent to the people yourselves.”

Mandates deserve respect: Mulder

Former Rumney MLC Tony Mulder, who lost his seat to Labor’s Sarah Lovell last month, believes the encroaching influence of political parties is making the Upper House irrelevant.

“Tasmania has been well served by a house dominated by independents – they are there to knock the rough edges off the Government,” Mr Mulder said.

He has previously proposed reforms to limit the powers of the Upper House, arguing the council should respect clear mandates secured at elections.

“It should not be able to frustrate something that the Government got a mandate from the people to do,” he said.

Mr Ecclestone said the “mandate” concept was easily muddled.

“The basic theory is an Upper House should respect the mandate of the Government of the day but in practice it’s really difficult to determine which pieces of policy really have received that mandate,” he said.

Mr Wilkinson agreed.

“The Upper House should, unless there are really good circumstances, accept that mandate,” he said.

“People vote though for various reasons and governments will always say, we went to the electorate with that mandate, but they’ve got another 15 or so policy issues which they believe you should accept.”






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