Tasmanian Parliament to restart, with busy agenda ahead and new faces set for debut

Exterior of the Tasmanian Parliament
There is plenty of politics left in a year that has already delivered a vast number of surprises.(ABC News: Scott Ross)

Tasmania’s Parliament hit the pause button to manage the coronavirus pandemic, but this week it’s back to business.

A profile picture of Jo Palmer
Jo Palmer appears to have won for the Liberals in Rosevears.(Supplied: Tasmanian Liberal Party)

Parliamentarians sat through one “normal” week of sittings at the start of March, before the COVID-19 took centre stage and this year’s legislative agenda took a backseat.

Sitting days were cut back, little was tabled, and opposition MPs relinquished their Private Members’ time, when they usually move motions or legislation, with the focus instead on urgent bills to manage the pandemic.

But on Tuesday, regular parliamentary business will resume.

Basslink power infrastructure, Tasmania.
The Labor Opposition has Labor has flagged support for the major projects Bill.(Basslink)

That means all kinds of controversial legislation to get through before the year is done, including major projects legislation, voluntary assisted dying laws, the Government’s anti-protest bill, and Labor’s proposed reforms to political donation laws.

There will also be the state Budget in November, after it was delayed as a result of coronavirus, and Government Business Enterprise hearings all packed into 12 sitting weeks.

The dynamics will remain similar, with independent Madeleine Ogilvie holding the balance of power on issues whether the Greens and Labor oppose the government.

Madeleine Ogilvie stands outside Parliament
Labor-turned-Independent Madeleine Ogilvie has shown she is happy to vote with the Liberals.(ABC News: Brian Tegg)

If Ms Ogilvie sides with the opposition, the casting vote will move to controversial Liberal Speaker Sue Hickey, who has shown again and again that she is willing to vote against her own side.

It won’t be easy for the still relatively new Premier Peter Gutwein to negotiate and ensure the Liberals’ plans for the state make it into law, particularly with the numbers in the Upper House also tight.

There will be some new faces — a recount for former Liberal MP Joan Rylah’s seat of Braddon is expected to elect young political adviser Felix Ellis to the government benches.

Liberal Jo Palmer, a former Channel Seven newsreader, and Labor’s Bastian Seidel will join MPs in the Legislative Council when the Upper House returns next week.

The Government has announced that controversial major projects legislation will be one of the first matters to be dealt with in the House of Assembly.

Dr Bastian Seidel wearing a hat.
Dr Bastian Seidel will take his place in the Upper House for Labor as Member for Huon.(Facebook: Bastian Seidel)

If passed, the Government could call in major and complex projects for development assessments, rather than letting them go through the local council approvals process.

The move makes it clear the pandemic will continue to frame the way the rest of the parliamentary year pans out.

In announcing that the bill would be tabled on Tuesday, Leader of the Government in the House of Assembly Michael Ferguson linked the proposed laws with rebuilding the economy, saying it would be “vitally important” for the state’s recovery.

The first draft of the major projects legislation was, however, released by the Government in 2017 — well before most Tasmanians had ever heard the term “coronavirus”.

Although Labor has flagged support for the major projects bill, if the government frames their agenda in that light for the remainder of the year it could be difficult for the Opposition to counteract the narrative.

For their part, Labor will push the Government on the economy — pointing out that net debt was already on a steep trajectory before coronavirus hit, and the numerous major infrastructure projects that are yet to turn their first sod — the promised underground bus mall in Hobart, for example.

There is plenty of politics left in a year that has already delivered a vast number of surprises.