Hare-Clark or Hare-Brain?

(First published in The Examiner 18 May 2021)

Having just come through another State election (with congratulations to the Premier and his strong team), many Tasmanians are again questioning, praising or criticising our unique electoral system.

The Clark part of the system is now immortalised not only in the name of the system but also in the Tasmanian seat of Clark (formerly Denison), which played the crucial role of finally delivering majority government.

The gentleman concerned was Andrew Inglis Clark, who also played a key role in the Federation and our Constitution.

In round figures, the Liberal Team scored 48% of the primary vote, i.e. No.1 votes.

In any other system (given preferences), this would translate into an eye-watering landslide result of which Prime Ministers Fraser, Howard and Abbott could’ve only dreamt.

In Tasmania, it translates into the slimmest of majorities of one seat.

In the election before, where the Liberal team did slightly better (with over 50% of the primary vote), Premier Hodgman had only a one-seat majority as well.

Requiring such huge margins to form stable majority government tests the system to its limits.

This is especially the case when it only takes one individual in the majority team to use this “power of one” to link up with the Opposition to push legislation and ideas which they could never achieve in their own Party room. 

It also allows them to connive with the Opposition to get the plum job of Speaker – as a random example.

 If everyone in the team played that game, our Tasmanian governments would be an absolute rabble.  Thankfully the moral compass of most team members allows them to recognise that not all wisdom resides between their ears and the coach determines what position on the field they will take.  They also recognise that wearing the team colours got them elected, which, in turn, suggests collegiality is the decent approach.

If everyone selfishly chose their own position on the field, the whole match tactic would be thrown asunder and a stable, decisive government denied to the people.

Hare-Clark also makes it easier for independents to succeed.  Some independents receive a blaze of undeserved publicity. Their stifling impact on decision making largely ignored.

Tasmanians, one suspects, recall the recession-inducing Green/Labor governments in Canberra and Hobart from 2010 – 2013.  Today, eight years later, Tasmania is the economically stand out State.

The cheering on of destabilising independents is unhelpful to sound stable government besides being unfair to other candidates.

The breathless reporting (not by this paper) of a “non-politician” who desperately seeks public office for the fourth time was just one example that springs to mind.

In Clark, the media’s championing of independents has helped see the election of an independent at the expense of Labor.

This will weaken Labor and its role as an effective opposition.

Independents are never asked about balanced budgets, unemployment rates, or the importance of making savings.  They just cheer for every horse on the track without ever having to put their own money on one.  They then seek to stand in the reflected glory of whomever the winner might be.

Commentators who act as unsubtle cheerleaders need to be held to account, especially when they get it so wrong.

During the campaign, names were mooted for success as “stand-out” candidates.

Names of people were thrown up as potentially threatening sitting members who then come last in their electorate despite the attempted leg up.  It is comforting to see that this favouritism did not translate into support at the State election.  This was most obvious with one expert commentator suggesting replacing a sitting member who actually went on to top the poll for all parties in Franklin.

But back to the one-seat majority.  Should we get rid of the Hare Clark System and move to single-member electorates like the Legislative Council?  Or should we increase the size of the House of Assembly back to 35?  Unlikely to be popular with the electors who should nevertheless reflect that the fewer number of politicians there are, the less the scrutiny of the ministry and bureaucracy.

As an aside, Lyons MP John Tucker will need to start thinking about his election advertisements for 2025.  His “Beauty and the Beast” in 2018 and “Don’t be a Sucker” in 2021 injected imagination and spunk into otherwise dull campaigns.

Which, by the way, suits the government of the day.  It usually translates into a mood supportive of the status quo.

Congratulations to all the candidates who put their name before their fellow Tasmanians offering themselves to serve.  To the successful ones – it’s an awesome privilege to which is attached awesome responsibilities.

About Eric

Eric Abetz has been a Liberal Senator for Tasmania since 1994 and has served in a range of Leadership, Ministerial and Shadow Ministerial roles.

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