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Bigger need not mean better

By J R Nethercote - posted Wednesday, 23 January 2013


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.

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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.

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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.

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This article was first published in The Canberra Times.



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About the Author

J R Nethercote, visiting research fellow, ACU Public Policy Institute, was on the staff of the Royal Commission on Australian Government Administration.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by J R Nethercote

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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