Major parties set to dominate Tasmanian Legislative Council as elections usher in Labor, Liberal members

Exterior of the Tasmanian Parliament
Eight out of 15 Upper House seats are set to be held by major party members.(ABC News: Scott Ross)

Labor and Liberal MPs look set to dominate Tasmania’s Legislative Council for the first time after weekend elections for the Upper House seats of Huon and Rosevears.

Key points:

  • Voters in Huon and Rosevears went to the polls on Saturday.
  • Counting so far indicates Labor will take the seat of Huon while the Liberals will win Rosevears — replacing two independents with two party-aligned MPs.
  • Long-serving independent MLCs say it’s a concern, as the Upper House is the Parliament’s house of review

Each party is likely to claim a seat apiece after capitalising on uncertainty about the Upper House’s function in our state’s political process.

That’s no slight on the aptitude of incoming Huon MLC Labor’s Bastian Seidel, nor Liberal candidate Jo Palmer in Rosevears, both of whom have worked extremely hard and shown a long and genuine commitment to their electorates.

But party candidates come with an advantage not enjoyed by independents: party money for advertising, party members to help campaign and party policies to point to when questioned on any issue.

And Labor and the Liberals have portrayed those unaligned as directionless and unaccountable throughout the Huon and Rosevears campaigns — misrepresenting the role of the Legislative Council.

To put it plainly, the Upper House is the sensible older sibling of the House of Assembly — it’s less shouty, a little less glamorous and, through no fault of its own, often ignored.

But its role as a house of review is crucial in ensuring strong and sensible laws are passed through the state’s Parliament.

Saturday’s election will likely see eight out of 15 Upper House seats held by Labor or Liberal members, who appear to hold five and three seats respectively.

Previously, just six of the Legislative Council MPs were from a major party.

Despite the result, the majority of MLCs could still be described as progressive, meaning the Liberal Government will still struggle to see some reforms through.

‘Eight voices representing two opinions’

An election corflute for Upper House Labor Candidate Bastian Seidel in Tasmania, it says "Vote 1 Bastian Seidel"
Being a party candidate comes with advantages, like money for advertising.(ABC News: Scott Ross)

Murchison independent MLC Ruth Forrest has been in Tasmania’s Upper House for more than 15 years, and said a shift towards having more party representatives in the Upper House was of concern.

“If you end up with … eight members all up from parties, that means eight voices are only representing two opinions,” Ms Forrest said.

“If you want a party member to represent you, that’s better done in the Lower House.

“The Upper House is somewhere you should have a more thorough and independent review of that policy.”

Launceston independent MLC Rosemary Armitage agreed, pointing out that party-aligned MLCs often chose one of their colleagues to state their party’s position on an issue during debates on legislation, rather than each individual making a speech and representing the views of their electorate.

“It’s less people speaking and having voices and having an opinion,” Ms Armitage said.

“We lose those opinions of the community.”

Cafe sign on the footpath advertising election day coffee
Votes are still being counted.(ABC News: Loretta Lohberger)

Ms Armitage said when she considered a piece of legislation — pointing to the upcoming Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill as an example — she researched the issue, spoke with members of her electorate and read local media.

She said she then examined similar legislation in other states, where it exists, before considering how to improve and strengthen the proposed laws.

“Obviously if you’re part of a party you don’t have that ability,” Ms Armitage said.

“If you’ve got a party-driven house of review, you do have to wonder about the role of the house of review.”

That’s not the impression you’d get from party-aligned candidates.

Dr Seidel accused independents of “flip-flopping” on issues, while Liberal Party accounts on social media derided unaligned candidates as having no plans or policies.

MLCs traditionally low profile

Independents — no matter how qualified — face an uphill battle to get elected.

Beyond name recognition linked to her decades-long career as a commercial newsreader, Ms Palmer had the clear advantage of being able to stand and nod behind the astronomically popular Premier Peter Gutwein at press conferences, ensuring she was beamed into many Tasmanians’ homes even after leaving the Seven studio.

A profile picture of Jo Palmer
Jo Palmer was already a familiar face to Tasmanians.(Supplied: Tasmanian Liberal Party)

Similarly, Dr Seidel could appear alongside Labor leader Rebecca White at media events.

Traditionally, MLCs are low-profile and are allocated one staff member once elected. A Labor proposal to increase the Legislative Council election spending cap to $30,000 will unquestionably favour candidates from the major parties.

Independents don’t have to just prove their personal worth, but the value of independence itself.

Former Tasmanian political journalist Barry Prismall said he was “gobsmacked” by the early results from the Huon and Rosevears election.

“The Legislative Council to me is a waste of time and money unless it is [full of] independent MLCs who will vote independently,” Mr Prismall said.

“Therefore you have candidates better representing the views of their constituents rather than party MLCs who, irrespective of what they say, are representing the interests of their parties.”

It should be noted results are still coming in and will be counted until August 11.

Ms Armitage, who missed out on becoming Launceston’s mayor by just three votes after six recounts in 2009, said she believed the result was far from certain.

“I know it can come right down to the wire,” Ms Armitage said.