Does the ACT need more MLAs?

By December 14, 2012Politics, Society

Chief Minister Katy Gallagher thinks it does, and has acted early in her new four-year term to see if the ACT could have a 25-member Assembly after the next election. ‘It’s always a very very difficult conversation about more politicians, but I think if we want good governance to continue in the Territory we’re going to have to accept that 17 members can no longer shoulder the workload that’s required’, she said.

I’m not in a position to know. What is the workload of an MLA, or any member of an Australian parliament? It is obvious enough that there is a basic amount of work that will come to any member of parliament, plus the obligation to attend sittings. After that, it must be up to the person concerned how hard he or she works at it. I learned something about it when editing the diaries of Peter Howson, a Liberal MP and Minister in the 1950s and 1960s. My feeling is that they all work pretty hard, because satisfying unhappy people is likely to turn them into one’s supporters. As with many other absorbing and important roles, the job of an MLA can become completely obsessive, irrespective of how many colleagues one has.

In the ACT five of those 17 MLAs are Ministers with multiple responsibilities, but they will have all the usual obligations as representatives as well. And the very few (4) of the government parties (9) who are not Ministers will presumably get more jobs to do on behalf of their Ministerial colleagues, and that will add to their load. Add to that, the lack of an upper house in the ACT means that all the representational work has to be done by the 17. Tasmania has 25 MLAs and 15 MLCs to deal with the needs of 500,000 people, while the ACT has 17 to deal with the needs of 400,000 (rounding up a little).

You could argue that Tasmania is over-represented, but given the importance of  ‘government’ in our society, and the way we turn to it to solve our problems, I don’t need much persuading that effective political representation is important to us as citizens. Whether 25 is the right number will be thrashed out by the expert panel that the Chief Minister has set up. That’s almost a fifty per cent increase, and Ms Gallagher may be setting her sights high now so that she can accept a lower figure as an acceptable compromise later.

She is right to suggest at once that there will be opposition to her proposal. There is a strong anti-politician streak in our society, and given the recent antics of  those in Federal parliament and the ICAC inquiries into those who are and were in the NSW Legislative Assembly, there will be people asking why on earth we need any more like them. By and large, however, the ACT Legislative Assembly has been free of shady deals  and shadier people. Long may that continue. The head of the Remuneration Tribunal is on the panel to tell us how much more it will cost. Whatever it is, the ACT could afford it, despite the money’s being taken from health, education and other worthwhile ends.

My own position is that an increase has to come sooner or later because of the steadily growing population of the ACT, which is likely to pass that of Tasmania in the next few decades. So the Chief Minister’s proposal is sensible and even timely, and since the panel has to report quickly, there is some prospect of its being a reality, at least while Labor is in power federally. The panel will also advise on the size and number of seats in a larger Assembly. If PR is to continue, you could have three six-member seats and a seven-member one, or two eight-member seats and a nine-member one. We could even have single-member electorates, though I doubt that one will come forward.

The ACT is a homogenous society and a highly connected one, which reminds me of an incident many years ago when I was training interviewers in Launceston. Because they too had multi-member seats the interviewers had to skip questions in the survey that were based on the single-member seats used elsewhere in Australia. At afternoon tea I asked one of them how multi-member seats actually worked.

‘If you had a problem here, in Launceston,’ I put to her, ‘a problem say to do with the high school — you know, something you thought a member of parliament ought to know about and might be able to fix — which one of your MLAs would you get in touch with, and why that one?’

‘Oh,’ she said, after a pause. ‘I think I’d just ring the Minister for Education!’

I’m sure Tasmania is still like that, but so is Canberra, I think.

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