Bigger need not mean better
DISSEMBLING? The fundamental question seems to be taken as settled. It is not a question of whether the Assembly should be enlarged but simply one of how, and by how much. Photo: Ben Plant
An advisory group assembled by ACT Chief Minister Katy Gallagher has published a discussion paper proposing an increase in the size of the Legislative Assembly.
This is one of those episodes which puts an observer in mind of the popular movie, The Mouse that Roared, which featured Peter Sellers in multiple roles.
It is clearly an initiative of the Labor government; according to the Chief Minister, debating this is ''a priority for ACT Labor''. Nevertheless, the business of announcing terms of reference and membership of the panel was left to the ACT Electoral Commission.
There is little public evidence of whether this initiative enjoys the blessing of the opposition, though it presumably has the support of the Greens.
It would seem that the decision to increase the size has already been reached. Apart from examining past reviews about the size, the main chores of the advisers concern ''factors relevant to increasing the size of the Assembly''; whether the proportional voting system places any limitations on changes to the size of the Assembly; and recommending ''options for increasing the size of the Assembly''.
The fundamental question seems to be taken as settled. It is not a question of whether the Assembly should be enlarged, but simply one of how, and by how much.
It is far from obvious from previous reviews that there is a case for enlarging it. There is certainly a conviction that it should be bigger, but this is well short of an evidence-based conclusion.
Some advocates fall back on contrasting representation in the ACT with that of other jurisdictions in Australia. Such contrasts can be no more than suggestive: they amount to allowing benchmarking to decide a question at issue instead of simply to illuminate it.
Another favoured argument relies on the fact that the ACT Assembly covers matters which elsewhere in Australia are shared by state and local governments. This take on the ACT situation fails to address the question of whether, in merging state and municipal functions, the consequence is economy and streamlining by elimination, or at least reduction, of transaction costs.
The trickiest of all arguments concerning enlargement relates not to the size of the Assembly directly but to the burdens on ministers especially occasioned by the need to participate in the multitude of federal-state committees which function under the auspices of the Council of Australian Governments.
As the Assembly itself has a relatively light load in terms of sittings, a load not significantly augmented by committee duty, and the ACT is a geographically compact polity, this argument needs a good deal more propping up if it is to weigh heavily in the judgment.
Representative bodies in the Westminster mould serve a range of functions, from legislation, scrutiny of administration and redress of grievances, to provision of members of the ministry, the executive.
The ACT Assembly has structural problems on several of these counts. Because it is a party house, one important influence in a representative body, the government backbench, is virtually absent. Cabinet and caucus are almost, but not quite, coterminous. A similar predicament affects the opposition side; the party room is largely composed of frontbenchers. An enlargement of the Assembly - even a significant enlargement - might not have much more than a marginal effect on these structural features.
Indeed, the preferred remedy - enlargement - might not even be an advance. Because of proportional voting, the effect of enlargement may simply do no more than enhance the presently depleted crossbench.
The key problem, which the ACT authorities have failed to appreciate, is that the size and composition of representative assemblies is as much an art as a science.
The ACT authorities seem to think it is basically a question of arithmetic.
One big puzzle is the decision to entrust leadership of the review to the ACT Electoral Commissioner, Phil Green. There are three problems with this decision.
The first is that the commissioner, in an orthodox situation, would be a leading witness before such an advisory panel. Those responsible for electoral administration would be a major source of information, but that information has to be rigorously scrutinised.
Under this model, there will be inhibitions on rigorous scrutiny of this key stream of information given that the membership of the panel has not been drawn from the communion of saints.
Second, when the panel presents its report, the electoral authority should be a source of major analysis for the government, the Assembly and the public.
In this instance, as has occurred a number of times recently within federal government - the Henry tax review is a standout instance - a principal analyst will instead be a major and interested advocate. Indeed, in this matter, the electoral commissioner has for some time, unusually, been a very public advocate of a larger assembly.
And, third, the size and composition of a representative body is a parliamentary as much as an electoral matter. In this case, while the electoral side is prominently in charge, the parliamentary side does not even have a place in the team.
There are resident, in the ACT, quite a number of people who have had substantial experience in advising on these questions of parliamentary design in legislatures around the world. That is a source of learning upon which the review team needs to draw, but a body so limited in parliamentary matters might not be well placed to exploit it.
>> J.R. Nethercote is an adjunct professor with the Public Policy Institute at the Australian Catholic University.