Tuesday 17 October 2017
Hansard of the Legislative Council
Goods and Services Tax - Western Australia

Mr FINCH (Rosevears) - Mr President, I read an article recently about GST and it struck a chord with me.  Some years ago, Carole and I were in Western Australia visiting some friends.  We were in a conversation at a social gathering about Colin Barnett's attitude towards Tasmania - and South Australia - in respect to GST.

I was quite incensed by his attitude towards Tasmania and the way Western Australia was being treated as far as the GST was concerned.  Colin Barnett and Western Australia were coming from a position of great strength, with their mining operations and what have you.  I defended Tasmania.  I suggested that when they were being developed and progressing in the Federation, Tasmania was there with our mineral economy booming and being very supportive of Western Australia.  How the worm turns.

It was interesting because the argument got a bit heated.  I remembered I was arguing with people I was staying with.  I was treading on thin ice and might be going back home early.  However, it was pointed out we live on an island that constitutes only a very tiny proportion of Australia's land mass.  In my early days in parliament, 16 years ago, we were struggling to get to 500 000 people, because young people were leaving and not so many older grey nomads or people wanting a sea change were coming to replace them.

Now we have a population just over 519 000 and growing.  That is just a few suburbs in places like Melbourne and Sydney; it is about the size of Geelong.  Our state budget relies greatly on federal GST revenue and, following on from Colin Barnett's example, is constantly under threat, perhaps even more so this year.  Tasmanians can probably be forgiven for sometimes exhibiting an inferiority complex, but in political terms any sense of inferiority would be greatly misplaced.

At Federation, the authors of our Constitution created an electoral skew to protect smaller states like Tasmania.  They ruled each state must have an equal number of senators regardless of population.  In 1901, they ruled each state should have at least five members in the House of Representatives.  However, analysis by economist Terry Rawnsley, a regional economics expert and consultant on GST economics and planning, of the number of federal members of parliament per person in each state has revealed a great discrepancy.

Matt Wade, a columnist in Melbourne's Age newspaper, has looked closely at the discrepancy.  He points out a Tasmanian voter has 4.25 times more power than a New South Wales voter.  A number of factors are behind this.  In 1901, Tasmania accounted for 5 per cent of the national population; that figure has shrunk to 2.1 per cent.  There are just 30 000 Tasmanians for each federal seat, senators and lower House members combined.  That 30 000 Tasmanians compares with 131 000 per federal MP in New South Wales and 125 000 in Victoria.

Matt Wade points out in the Age that on current trends, the population gap between Australia's biggest and smallest states will keep growing, making the state-based disparity in voting power even more pronounced.  He says -

Tasmania will soon be home to less than one in 50 Australians, but it will continue to return almost one in six Australia senators.

Terry Rawnsley, I mentioned before, says and I quote -

As smaller states have a greater impact on the parliament you might see regional issues coming into conflict with the national good.

Changing this situation will, of course, require a constitutional referendum with majority support in every state, and Tasmanians are not going to vote for that any time soon.  I will just quote again Matt Wade in the Age -

So far, Australia's biggest states have quietly accepted their deteriorating share of federal representation.  But over time, the voting disparities driven by demographic change could undermine good policy and put pressure on the federation.

I argue Tasmanian governments must always be aware of this situation, for fear of bringing the big states down on our two heads.