Without seeking to canvass the circumstances in which Tasmanian Minister for Economic Development Paula Wriedt attempted to take her own life on Monday, I would ask other Australians to consider the state of affairs in Tasmania in terms of both ministerial workloads and parliamentary representation.

In 1998, the ALP and the Liberals combined to reduce the number of seats in the Tasmanian Lower House, the House of Assembly, from 35 to 25. The reason was neither to save money nor to be more efficient; it was to get rid of the Greens, who had disrupted the cosy two-party system in Tasmania in 1989 when they won the balance of power for the first time.

The House of Assembly shares the same electorates as the five Tasmanian seats in the House of Representatives: Bass, Braddon, Denison, Franklin and Lyons. Under the Hare-Clark voting system, prior to 1998 seven members were elected in each of the five electorates. It meant the quota a candidate needed to be elected was 12.5 per cent of the vote. In fact, it was 12.5 per cent plus one vote. With the rise of environmentalism in Tasmania, the Greens were beginning to do that easily in at least four of the five electorates, increasing their prospects of winning the balance of power consistently.

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The 1998 move to reduce to the size of the House to five members in each electorate had the effect of increasing the quota to 16.6 per cent (plus one), which temporarily kicked the Greens out of Parliament, apart from Peg Putt. They have since recovered in all but Braddon.

The problem with having a house of 25 members is that, even in a landslide, the ministry exceeds the number of government backbenchers. Former premier Jim Bacon’s solution was to reduce the number of ministers, increasing the workload. They try to get by with eight. Tasmania may be the small fry of the nation, but it requires the same governance as the other States in the Federation, the same representation at ministerial council meetings. The lack of talent in both the Government and the backbench has been apparent since 1998. It means that weak ministers are covered by senior ministers who take on more and more responsibilities.

Whatever else was going on in her life, Paula Wriedt must have been under stress at work. They all are. Now there is talk in Tasmania of rectifying the mistake of 1998 and returning to the House of Assembly of 35 members, to increase the backbench and the gene pool of the ministry. Logic suggests it should be a return to seven members in each of the five electorates. But that would reduce the quota to be elected back to 12.5 per cent. It would raise the prospect of the greenest electorates, Franklin and Denison in southern Tasmania, perhaps each returning two Green MPs at future elections. That would guarantee the Greens the balance of power.

The solution being mooted by the two major political parties is to have five members in seven new electorates, which would maintain the quota at 16.6 per cent, fragment the Green electorates, and keep the Greens in their place, out of contention.

We may have former Melbourne footballer Ray Groom to thank for all this. As premier, he first mooted the reduction in MPs in 1994, but allied it with a 40 per cent pay rise for politicians. The journos of the day ran with the 40 per cent pay rise scandal, when the real story was the blow to democracy and good government that we see today through a ridiculously small parliament and the unfortunate vignette of Paula Wriedt.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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