Andrew Inglis Clark

Ask me for a Tasmanian political hero, and I’d say Andrew Inglis Clark.

Clark may not be a household name. But by any measure, he remains one of Tasmania’s – and Australia’s – most distinguished public figures.

His contribution to our state was celebrated at Hobart’s Town Hall on 9 October with the Inaugural Public Lecture in his name. The lecture was presented by renowned jurist, academic, and human rights advocate Michael Kirby.

Why should today’s Tasmanians care about a state politician who was elected towards the end of the 19th century?

Clark had qualities that we should continue to look for in our modern Tasmanian leaders – a person with a big vision and ambition for Tasmania, informed by a global perspective and intimate local knowledge.

On the eve of local government elections, it’s a good time to reflect on one of our state’s great reformers and champions of democracy, and think about the next wave of reform for Tasmania’s democracy.

Those gathered heard about a man born in Hobart in 1848 who grew up in a society still deeply influenced by the convict system. The last convict transport arrived in Hobart when he was five years old. But the deep divisions between the bonded and the free continued long after transportation ceased.

Pardoned convicts were not received in polite society, regardless of their character and their circumstances. Being a small community, everyone knew which families bore the convict brand that blighted the lives of the emancipists and their children as well.

It was fear of the ex-convict working class that delayed Tasmania’s march towards the full-blown democracy of the mainland colonies. Clark first came to public attention in 1883 when he established a political reform association.

He wanted to sweep away the conservative features of Island political life and remove what he called the ‘badge of inferiority’ imposed on large sections of the community. In some ways, Tasmania continues to wear the badge today.

Once elected, and as the Tasmanian Attorney-General, Clark was true to his word. The best known of his sweeping reforms was the introduction of proportional representation for elections in Hobart in 1896. Called the Hare-Clark system, it remains perhaps the most distinctive feature of Tasmanian democracy.

His reform had both local and international significance because it was the first time proportional representation had been adopted in the English speaking world and one of the first times it had been tried anywhere.

Now proportional representation is the preferred electoral model world-wide because it’s considered the fairest and most democratic. Clark’s influence on international democracy is another reason we should celebrate his stature as a great reformer.

He also played a central role in shaping the federal constitution. He arrived at the 1891 federal convention in Sydney with his own draft, which became the foundation on which the final document was built. He didn’t have it all his own way, with an unsuccessful attempt to have a bill of rights included in the constitution.

Clark’s contribution to the Australian constitution has been noted by historians but has received little public recognition. The lack of recognition of Clark in Tasmania is harder to understand. It is not just a matter of giving credit where it is due. It is surely a test of whether we take our own history seriously, an indication of the degree to which we value our own home-grown democracy.

Can Clark inspire a new generation of reform for Tasmania’s democratic institutions? A number of areas need modernising. Local government is often touted as the level of government closest to the people, yet it has very low participation.

Around Australia, voting is compulsory in local elections, except in South and Western Australia and Tasmania. This is perhaps the main reason we see voter turn-out of less than 50% for council elections.

Internationally, it is local government that is using innovative tools to connect people to democracy, by giving them a real say in decisions. One example is the growing use of participatory budgeting, now used in over fifteen hundred cities in Latin America, North America, Asia, Africa, and Europe to involve people in designing their city budgets.

With the issue of Myer funding looming large in the Hobart Council campaign, reforms such as participatory budgeting would lead to greater transparency, more public ownership of decisions, and less community backlash.

Inspired by Clark, we should continue his tradition of looking for new ways for Tasmanians to deepen our connections to democracy.