Parliament of Tasmania


Wednesday, 07 May 2014

The Speaker, Ms Archer, took the Chair at 10 a.m. and read Prayers.


Honourable Neil Maxwell Robson AM

 [11.28 a.m.]

Mr HODGMAN (Franklin - Premier - Motion) - Madam Speaker, I move -

That this House express its deep regret at the death on 14 December 2013 of the Honourable Neil Maxwell Robson AM, a former minister of the Crown from 1982 to 1984 and member of the electorate of Bass from 1976 to 1992, and places on record its appreciation of his service to the state, and further that this House respectfully tenders to his family its sincere sympathy in their bereavement.

Mr Neil Robson was born in Smithton on 5 July 1928 and died on 14 December 2013.  He married Desiree on 25 May 1949 and they had three children, Jill, Paul and Jan.  Mr Robson was educated at the Launceston Church Grammar School and later served in the Royal Australian Naval Reserve during World War II between 1945 and 1946.  He served overseas on the  HMAS Quickmatch and with the British occupational forces in Japan.

 After his service he returned to Tasmania, working at the Launceston Savings Bank and was appointed branch manager at several locations before becoming state marketing manager in 1963, a position he held until he left the bank in 1976.  During that time he formed the Rotary Club of George Town in 1956 and served as its president, secretary and treasurer over a number of years.  He was also the Tasmanian representative on the Bankers Institute of Australia, to which he was granted an honorary fellowship and honorary life membership.

Most notably, Mr Robson was the quizmaster on TNT9's show Quiz Quest for 13 years.  In addition to this he was also the chairman of the Tasmanian Schoolchildren's Scholarship panel for 12 years and the Australian chairman of Mensa from 1978 to 1982.

On 11 December 1976 Mr Robson had the honour of being elected to this House as a Liberal member for Bass.  He is, of course, most well known for the introduction of a private member's bill in 1979 that amended the Electoral Act to implement what we now know as the 'Robson Rotation' which, despite some criticism, provides a fair and impartial method of listing candidates on ballot papers so that no one candidate benefits overall from a position on the ballot paper.  The Robson Rotation was first used in the Denison by-election in 1980, is still used to this day in all House of Assembly, Legislative Council and municipal council elections in Tasmania and has also been adopted by the Legislative Assembly in the Australian Capital Territory.

As a member of the Gray Liberal Government, in May 1982 he became Minister for Industry and Small Business and Minister for Inland Fisheries.  He later held the additional responsibilities of Minister assisting the Minister for State Development and Recreation, Minister for Consumer Affairs and Minister for Housing.  As a minister of the Crown he was responsible for the introduction of the Tasmanian Development Authority and the Small Claims Tribunal.

Mr Robson retired from parliament in 1992, but after his successful career in politics he became the inaugural chairman of the Tasmanian Institute of Adult Education Council, a board member and audit chairman for TAFE Tasmania, a board member of the Port of Launceston, a board member of the Tasmanian Divisional Council of the Taxpayers Association of Australia and an honorary life member of the Proportional Representation Society of Australia.  I am not sure how they are going at the moment or what their membership is, but we wish them our very best and acknowledge the very high regard in which he is held by that group and the important role he played in delivering what were very significant and important electoral reforms.

He served with a number of other community organisations including the George Town Parents and Friends Association, the George Town YMCA, the Launceston Creche Committee, the George Town RSL and the Tasmanian Fly Fishers Club.  Mr Robson was awarded the Centenary Medal in 2002 for service to electoral reform, particularly for creating the Robson Rotation on all ballot papers.  In 2004 he authored the book Everybody Counts, which explains in simple terms how the Hare-Clark system with the Robson Rotation works.  For doing that and many other things he was duly appointed a Member of the Order of Australia on 26 January 2007 for service to electoral reform through the voting system to the Tasmanian parliament and to fishing and other community organisations. 

It is well known that Neil was an avid trout fisherman and he authored two books on that recreational activity.  In 1970 he co-authored the book Tasmanian Angler and in 2005 published Tales of a Tasmanian Angler, a collection of anecdotal stories collected during his years of fly fishing.

 Neil Robson was obviously well known to the Liberal Party and to a number of members present today, but of course also to many who came before us as a man of great intellectual capacity and passion with an ability to identify and resolve issues before him.  He was also someone I always found to have an unbridled sense of enthusiasm and optimism and a very enjoyable individual to be around and engage in conversation on a range of subjects.  It was relatively rare but on occasions he would find his way back into this building and dispense the odd bit of advice or in fact make some suggestions for policy reform that we might like to consider.  I know he did that in his broader community by continuing to play a very active role with a number of groups but, most importantly, in the place he lived.  He has contributed so much to this state.

On behalf of the Government, the Parliament and the people of Tasmania, we send our sincere condolences to Neil's family, who are no doubt experiencing a very difficult loss.  They have been able to celebrate and reflect on the life of an extraordinary individual who was a member of the parliamentary family.  We thank that family for the service Neil provided for our state.

Members - Hear, hear.

[11.35 a.m.]

Mr GREEN (Braddon - Leader of the Opposition) - I am pleased to rise today to pay tribute to the Honourable Neil Robson AM, a man who made an enormous and enduring contribution to Tasmanian political life.  I endorse each and everything the Premier has just said but would like to add a little from my own point of view.

Neil Robson was born in my electorate in Smithton on 5 July 1928 and educated at Launceston Church Grammar.  Throughout his professional career Neil displayed amazing intellect and an affinity for numbers.  After serving in the Royal Australian Navy Volunteer Reserve during World War II, he started work at the Launceston Bank for Savings, rising through the ranks as bank manager and moving up to the position of state marketing manager.

People may recall Neil as a quizmaster on the TNT9 show Quiz Quest for 13 years.  I certainly do; it was something I watched a lot as a kid in George Town.  He was the chairman of Mensa from 1978 to 1982.

It was as a member of parliament in the seat of Bass that Neil used his affinity with numbers to make this great democracy of ours even more democratic.  In 1979 he successfully introduced a private member's bill to amend the Electoral Act 1907 to implement the Robson Rotation.  This was an ingenious idea, addressing significant shortcomings in the preferential voting system by ensuring that no candidate could receive an unfair advantage simply by being placed on top of the ballot paper.  Without any doubt the Robson Rotation has made a difference to how you campaign in Tasmania.  I have often explained to people that if they have to take the time to find the party of which you are a member, they also have to take the time to find you on the ballot paper, which is not easy and is quite a daunting task for many people.  If you get 16 000 votes or 15 500 votes, as I have at times in the past, people have had to go to quite a bit of effort to find you on the ballot paper.  That is how I know that people who achieve a significant vote in the Tasmanian electoral system have worked very hard.  It is not easy to get people to take the time to find you as an individual on the ballot paper.  In fact, any person who stands will get 500‑700 votes without even trying as a result of being on top of the ticket.  If you look at it across the board you will see that that is the case.  It was an ingenious idea.

The Robson Rotation was first used in the Denison by-election in 1980 and is used for the House of Assembly, Legislative Council and municipal council elections Tasmania and Legislative Assembly elections in the ACT.

Neil's contribution was not limited to electoral reform.  In the years leading up to his retirement in 1992 he served as Minister for Industry and Small Business, Minister for Inland Fisheries, Minister assisting the Minister for State Development and Recreation, Minister for Consumer Affairs, Minister for Housing, and Minister for Small Business.  His contribution to public life continued well after Parliament.  He was the inaugural chairman of the Tasmanian Institute of Adult Education Council, board member and audit chairman for TAFE Tasmania, board member of the Port of Launceston Pty Ltd, board member of the Tasmanian Divisional Council of Taxpayers and the Association of Australia.

In 2007, as mentioned by the Premier, he deservedly was appointed as a Member of the Order of Australia for his service to electoral reform, the Tasmanian Parliament, fishing, and other community organisations.  I had many discussions with Neil, both as a politician and as a fly-fisher.  He was a highly skilled and highly praised fisherman.  The great thing was his advocacy for the fishery and his ability to enthuse young people in particular about trout fishing, which I believe is a fantastic pastime.  Fly-fishing is an area of life where you never stop learning.  I can give an example of that.  My friend - in fact, he is my driver, Rex Bramich - was talking to Neil Robson when we were thinking about going to Arthur's Lake fishing.  Neil said to him, 'I've been catching them on a maroon woolly worm.'  I tied some maroon woolly worms before we went and we had some fantastic days there catching fish on that worm.  Every time we caught one we thought of  Neil Robson and the advice he had given.

Neil also came to see me about celebrating the history of the inland fisheries in Tasmania and fishing in Tasmania.  As fisheries minister I was pleased to try to help make sure that we did celebrate and gave due credit to those forefathers who introduced trout into Tasmania.  Some may not necessarily agree, but the pleasure that so many people have derived from fishing for trout in Tasmania and the impact on the Tasmanian economy was helped a lot by people like Neil Robson. I believe that part of the Order of Australia recognition went to fishing and there are not too many people who can say that.

I have not read Tales of a Tasmanian Angler, but I will because it is in the Tasmanian Parliamentary Library here, so I will take the time to read it.  I am not so sure about Everybody Counts, which explains the Hare-Clark system.  It probably would not hurt to brush up on that.  We have come off the back of a not so good election result, and Neil's book would help us to understand exactly what we need to do to make sure that we do better next time.

I pass on my sincere condolences to Neil's family on his passing.  Every now and then you have a person who transcends political boundaries with their contribution, their friendship and their general positive manner; I believe Neil Robson was one of those.

Members - Hear, hear.

[11.43 a.m.]

Mr McKIM (Franklin) - On behalf of the members of the Tasmanian Greens elected to this place, I also offer my condolences to Mr Robson's family and friends on his passing.

I will not go through the history of his life in detail because it has been done very well by the Premier and in part by the Leader of the Opposition, but suffice it to say he was clearly an intelligent man who fully embraced life.  That provides a role model for all of us in this place and for all Tasmanians.  His life was replete with many achievements, but as both previous speakers have noted one of the things that Neil Robson is best known for was the introduction of a private member's bill in 1979 to amend the Electoral Act 1907 to implement the Robson Rotation.  It no doubt makes Tasmanian House of Assembly elections fairer and results in a House that more closely reflects the opinions and wishes of the people. 

Mr Robson, as has been noted, wrote Everybody Counts in relation to Hare-Clark.  He is quoted as saying this about electoral systems:

A good electoral system ensures that significant bodies of opinion in the electorate are represented in the resultant parliament.  The result of an election should produce representations in the Parliament in proportion to the support obtained from voters. 

Clearly, a proportional representation system such as Hare-Clark delivers that to a far greater degree than a system that relies on single-member electorates.

Mr Robson also supported Hare-Clark or proportional representation because of its capacity to provide a viable opposition.  He pointed out that in single-member electorates where a single issue can dominate, most of the seats can be won by one party.  You only have to look at the current situation in Queensland to understand what can happen if a parliament is filled with members elected from single-member electorates.  Mr Robson also believed that it is very important that minority viewpoints are represented in the Parliament as well as majority viewpoints.  Of course, Hare-Clark, which was augmented by Mr Robson's private member's bill is one of the fairest electoral systems in the world, if not the fairest electoral system in the world.  There are not many people who can claim, as I do on Mr Robson's behalf today, that they made the fairest electoral system in the world even fairer.  I think that that is something that he will be long remembered for as long as there are no attempts in the future to move Tasmania's House of Assembly elections away from proportional representation.  I sincerely hope and trust that we do not see that any stage because although many people do not like the fact that it elects members into this place with significant but minority support in the electorate, it is important that people who are part of a significant minority viewpoint in a community are provided with representation in the House of Assembly.

He wrote a paper in 2001 entitled 'Tasmania's Unique Electoral System' and he quoted with approval Thomas Hare who, along with Andrew Inglis Clark, was the architect of the Hare-Clark system.  As has been mentioned, it has been exported from Tasmania to the Legislative Assembly in the ACT - one of Tasmania's most significant political exports in the history of our state.  In that paper, he quoted approvingly Thomas Hare's list of the advantages of proportional representation.  They include the fact that it protects the minority from the tyranny of the majority, it makes it in the interest of every party to put forward their best candidates, and makes it worthwhile for good people to apply as candidates.  When you add the Robson Rotation to the Hare-Clark system you get an electoral system that I believe is among the fairest in the world.

Mr Robson's support for proportional representation did not end with the successful passage of his private member's bill.  In fact, he stayed involved in the Proportional Representation Society of Australia as an honorary life member.  I can inform the Premier that to the best of my knowledge that society still exists and is a functioning society with a mandate to protect proportional representation electoral systems when they are under threat and to work to promote them as the fairest way of electing parliaments in a democracy. 

His was a life well and fully lived and one that will deservedly be remembered and respected for many years to come because of his work to promote proportional representation and particularly his work to make one of the fairest electoral systems in the world even fairer. 

On behalf of the Greens members of this Parliament, we acknowledge the achievements of the Honourable Neil Maxwell Robson AM and pay our condolences and offer our best wishes to his friends and family.

[11.51 a.m.]

Mr ROCKLIFF (Braddon - Deputy Premier) - I would also like to extend my condolences to the family of Mr Neil Robson for his tremendous achievement over a lifetime, not only in this place between 1976 and 1992 but as a great intellect and a Tasmanian we can be very proud of.  He had a 16-year parliamentary career, two of those years from 1982 to 1984 as a minister of the Crown in this House.

I also want to pay tribute to the positive change that he put forward for the Hare-Clark system in Tasmania.  I am not going to get into a debate about the merits or otherwise of the Hare-Clark system because it is a very challenging environment to be in, but it would be even more challenging if that change were not made.  One of the great things about Neil Robson rotating ballot was that it took the party machine out of the election.  It made the system a lot fairer.  That is a major achievement, particularly through bringing forward a private member's bill which would have passed through both Houses of Parliament.

The member for Braddon, Mr Green, mentioned the fly-fishing exploits and expertise of Mr Neil Robson. Mr Guy Barnett, the member for Lyons, has not yet made his first speech in this House, but I was very interested to learn that Mr Robson taught him how to fly fish on the Meander River, which is one of Mr Barnett's fond memories. 

I want to offer my condolences to his family.  I went to the launch of Everybody Counts, the book that Neil Robson wrote on the Hare-Clark system.  David Crean launched that book in 2004.  It was a very good launch and I know there was a family connection between the former Treasurer of the Tasmanian Government and Mr Robson.  He gave a very glowing speech on the contribution of Neil Robson to the history of Tasmania and our electoral system.  It was an event well worth going to.

With those few words, I express my sincere condolences to the family of Mr Robson and commend him for his wonderful contribution to Tasmania.

[11.43 a.m.]

Ms O'BYRNE (Bass) - There have been many famous members for Bass but probably none as famous and continuing through history as Neil Robson.  I wanted to touch a little on Neil's earlier life because quite often those things are left unsaid.  They create the character of the man who then came to have such significant impact on our political system in Tasmania. 

Neil wrote a story around his life for the Proportional Representation Society of Australia, Victoria and Tasmania Branch, called A Busy Life.  In it he talked about the fact that when he was born, nurse Bates of Smithton officiated in his birth at 4.30 a.m. at the home in Emmett Street.  He said that nurse Bates and he met many years later and it was a mutual dislike.  He did not get on well with all the people who cared for him.  His father died when he was only about three months old and when his mum died he lived with his grandparents. 

When he was about 10 his grandparents died within about three months of each other so his brothers organised for him to be raised by a nanny-housekeeper, a Miss Amy Webster, whom he talks about as being a very religious person. 

When she first walked up our front garden path I shot her on the bum with a homemade bow and arrow.  After that we became firm friends.  At times, though, this friendship was strained, as on one particular day when stripping for a bath she found a blue-tongue lizard in my singlet and four baby snakes in a tobacco tin in my pocket. 

So obviously he formed very strong relationships with the people who cared for him when he was very young.

He received a scholarship to go to Launceston Church Grammar where he said that he started off at the top of the class and gradually worked his way back to near the bottom through spending too much time playing football, swimming and running.  It would indicate that whilst he had a great educational opportunity, he did not use it so well when he was at Grammar.  It was while he was working at the bank that he had to do an IQ test as part of bank policy.  That was when he was invited to become a member of Mensa, which was a reasonably significant step.

His home in George Town was incredibly significant for that community.  There were a number of organisations he was part of but in particular he formed the Rotary Club of George Town without being a Rotarian.  He formed the Students Guidance Council, the Chamber of Commerce, he was in the Photographic Society and the Beaconsfield Rotary Club, he was chairman of the YMCA which, on its inauguration, had a large gymnasium built through local and state government support.  He was also treasurer of the local RSL, and I know that he would have been greatly concerned about the current circumstances of the RSL in George Town because it is an organisation that provides an incredible service to that community.  I know members of the House will probably be having conversations about how best we can support that.  As Neil was a treasurer of that organisation I think it would be significantly important for us as well.

When he first thought up the rotation and put the option forward he was referred to as the 'mad professor'.  When the rotation was then adopted he was referred to as a man of vision.  As members know he retained the title 'Honourable'.  Former Premier Field nominated that he retain the title 'Honourable' and I think it was granted by Governor Bennett for the rest of his life, which was a significant thing as well. 

He said when he looked back at his time in parliament there were many members he liked and many he disliked but he had great respect for David Crean whom he said would always go down as one of the state's great treasurers and is in fact the only Labor member of parliament Neil Robson ever doorknocked for.

Neil had a significant impact on this House and on our political system but he also had a significant impact on the community of George Town in the electorate of Bass.  I join with colleagues in giving my sympathy and support to his family but also in recognising a life well lived.

Members - Hear, hear.

[11.58 a.m.]

Mr GUTWEIN (Bass - Treasurer) - I take the opportunity to place some of my own thoughts on the Hansard for the Robson family.  Having known Neil for many years, through Quiz Quest days, Neil invited me to parliament I think in 1992.  He brought me to this Chamber and had a chat.  He was obviously very interested in proportional representation and a whole range of other matters and we had some other interests.  I had lunch here with him on that day and I must have been 25 or 26 years old.  We started what I would not call a close friendship but a good friendship over the years, which I have to say culminated, and I am sure the family will forgive me for this, in attending what I thought was one of the best funerals - albeit that there is no such thing as a good funeral - I have ever attended in regard to seeing somebody off and recognising their life.  Michael Ferguson and I were at the funeral.  Charles Wooley was MC and he did a fantastic job.  It was a funeral where people laughed, cried and applauded and Neil's life was recognised in the most magnificent way. 

I had occasion to bump into one of Neil's daughters a couple of weeks after the funeral and without even thinking - and I apologised to her afterwards - I said, 'That was a fantastic funeral', which is probably not something you should say to somebody who has just lost their father, but she acknowledged that it was a most fitting recognition of Neil's life.  There were stories told that were just so Neil Robson.  One that Charles regaled the assembly with was about the day that Neil thought he had killed the rooster.  As a fly fisherman, Neil was looking for feathers at a property, I think at Cressy.  They had captured a rooster and were about to pluck the appropriate feathers off it and the rooster died - or in fact Neil thought it had died but it had only fainted.  So he picked the rooster up and put it into one of those little four-wheel drive soft-top Toyotas and apparently as he was driving back into Launceston with the rooster in the car it woke up.  You can imagine Neil Robson and the language and the way he dealt with that situation.

I want to say to the family, Desiree especially, that over the time I knew Neil he was one of the most thoughtful, intelligent people I have ever come across in my life, and this place is certainly the poorer for his passing.  My condolences to the family.

[12.02 p.m.]

Mr LLEWELLYN (Lyons) - Madam Speaker, I support those comments that have been made and the long list of achievements in Neil's life.

I met and got to know Neil as a member in this Chamber but more so at the time when we were engaged in the Central Highlands Select Committee on Fly Fishing.  It was a very tough committee.  It went from place to place, and one of the places it went to was the Walls of Jerusalem.  In order to get there Neil had to make a special arrangement for us to ride our horses through the Central Highlands and at that stage World Heritage Area, very carefully avoiding any damage to the Walls of Jerusalem, and to stay in the hut there.  I recall very vividly the trip in on the horse but I recall even more vividly the trip out because it rained like hell and everyone got wet - and the Clerk was present as well.

Members laughing.

Mr LLEWELLYN - Yes, Mr Alcock was there.  But we had a wonderful time and we learnt a hell of a lot from the point of view of fly fishing in the World Heritage Area.  Neil was an avid fly fisher; he really loved that sport and affected the lives of a lot of people.  References to the books he had written on that subject have already been made.

The other thing I wanted to mention was the rotation ballot and the private member's bill.  Often in politics it is about timing.  Neil had had the private member's bill in the Parliament for some time, well and truly before I was a member of the Parliament.  He had introduced it but did not really have the support of the government of the day, Doug Lowe's Government.  However, as it happened, the Labor Party had a conference at Queenstown and one of the agenda items was a reference to the Hare‑Clark system and the way it operated.  There was a particular push within that conference at the time to change the system so as to have a Senate-style approach such that you could have a how-to-vote card and those people who were positioned on the top of the how‑to‑vote card would be elected to Parliament first.  The motion was passed at the conference and when the Premier of the day heard about this, he raced back to Hobart and said, 'I'll sort this matter out' and asked Neil Robson to introduce his bill, so the rotation system was initiated.  It was impossible to have a how-to-vote card because people appeared in a different spot on the ballot paper each time.  That avoided what would have been a decimation of the Hare-Clark system as we know it now.  Timing is always the case and Neil's bill was very important in improving the process and eliminating the donkey vote within the electoral system.

One other aspect I heard Neil talk about at great length was banking.  He had a theory that the Government ought to establish a bank and fund it itself.  I am not sure about the details and I may be doing him an injustice, but it was explained to me on a couple of occasions how the Constitution allowed this to happen and that it should happen as far as the state was concerned.  He was very strong on that issue.  The other thing I remember from when I was in Parliament with him was his attitude toward some of the media.  When he felt that there was something that was not right in the way the media reported things, Neil would remonstrate and his speeches were strong in that regard. 

I want to join with others in extending my sympathy to Desiree and the three children and their families.  Neil will be greatly missed by them and by a lot of other people in the community.

Members - Hear, hear.

Motion agreed to nemine contradicente.

Motion by Mr Hodgman agreed to -

That copies of the foregoing resolutions, together with the transcript of the debate, be forwarded to the families of the late Mr Robinson, Mr Brown and Mr Robson.