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Size matters when assembling quality

Date

Jack Waterford

Comment

An empty ACT Legislative Assembly chamber.

An empty ACT Legislative Assembly chamber. Photo: Karleen Minney

Even those who want better, rather than more, politicians and a more effective, rather than a bigger, legislature must consider whether the cost of too few politicians is worth the decline in the quality of administration it produces.

Put simply, the ACT voting system virtually ensures ACT governments are composed of seven to nine politicians in one party or coalition. From this number must come at least four - but possibly up to six - ministers. Each has a heavy workload, whether in policy formulation or practical administration. They carry out all of the functions that in two nearby states, NSW and Victoria, are filled by 22 ministers, and, in addition, are responsible for the administration of a full range of local government, municipal services, land and environmental functions elsewhere carried out at local government level. That the ACT has a smaller population makes little difference to the range of functions to be performed, although the fact the ACT ministry is a fraction the size of other jurisdictions means increased workload in the ever-more-important ministerial council and Council of Australian Government framework.

A governing party not only needs a core of talented ministers and talented potential ministers but also an active backbench to be able to represent the party in a very active and effective assembly committee system, as well as manage a host of representational and political activities on behalf of their parties. Often, though not in this parliament, the governing coalition is also required to produce a speaker.

Put simply, eight or nine members is simply not enough to give a chief minister the choice she or he needs to be able to form the most effective government. In the 24-year history of ACT self-government, indeed, there has scarcely been a time when a chief minister has had more than two or three colleagues of great ability and skill. Usually, at least two of the ministers, in either Labor or coalition governments, have been of indifferent ability, but the capacity of chief ministers to replace them has been greatly circumscribed by lack of alternatives, and lack of experience.

The cost of poor ministers is not reflected in political unpopularity and risk to survival. It is reflected in bad decisions, inefficiency, ineffectiveness and delay - all representing actual expense to the territory and taxpayers, far greater than the cost of having a bigger parliament and talent pool.

Oppositions need numbers to provide effective scrutiny, and the space and resources to develop alternative legislation, policy and ideas. My view is that a parliament of 25 is a minimum requirement.

If that gave the people of Canberra a legislature the same size as Tasmania's it would not mean that Canberra would have more politicians per head. Tasmania, after all, has 19 federal politicians for a population not much bigger than the ACT, which has only four federal representatives. Yet Canberra has a higher state domestic product. And in Tasmania, there are hundreds of elected members in local government Likewise, the Northern Territory, with a population smaller than the ACT, has about twice as many territory-level politicians per head of voters - and a substantial local government structure.

Extra members add about $1 million each to costs - a fifth of that representing pay and entitlements. It is not difficult to find examples where avoidable mistakes in ACT decision-making have cost the territory much more than $8 million a year.

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