THE Coalition still governs comfortably on the main floor of State Parliament – the ‘‘bear pit’’ of the lower house. But things are not so clear in the upper house, where it holds just 19 of the 42 seats, the same number as Labor and the Greens combined.
While the cross-bench members of the Shooters and Fishers Party and Reverend Fred Nile’s Christian Democrats will often side with the Coalition, this is not always the case, as an upper house select committee investigation of the planning process in Newcastle and the broader Hunter Region clearly shows.
The committee was established in September with broad terms of reference but its understandable focus is the truncation of the Newcastle rail line, which the Coalition is determined to see done on Boxing Day.
For its part, a majority of committee members are equally determined to ensure the rail services remain. The two Liberal Party members of the six-person committee are expected to dissent from the majority view but the chairman, Reverend Nile, is scheduled to hand down an interim report on Thursday that will recommend the Boxing Day truncation not go ahead.
Not surprisingly, Premier Mike Baird and his government have repeatedly criticised the committee and its inquiry – which took three days of evidence, including two in Newcastle – as politically motivated.
Even if this is correct (and as Mr Baird and his fellow parliamentarians are all politicians, it follows that their work-related actions are indeed political), it does not negate the Legislative Council’s ability to legitimately investigate government decisions where it sees fit, and where it has the numbers.
After an ICAC-dominated year from hell, Mr Baird should accept that any days of railroading the public – excuse the pun – are surely over. The government must not only run the state with integrity, it must be seen to do so.
Instead, it has adopted a crash-or-crash-through approach on the rail line. In response, its critics are exploring the potential for an 11th-hour court injunction, which could in turn result in a legal examination of the disputed need for an act of parliament to close the line.
Given the degree of community unrest, it might benefit the government to accept the sometimes annoying delays that democracy can entail, and to meet the requests of the Nile committee.
At the same time, Mr Baird might also remember that the Legislative Council, as a house of review, has a legitimate role in examining and hopefully improving the decisions of the lower house.
Because if there is one thing that the two sides of the rail debate agree on, it’s that nothing less than the future of the Newcastle central business district is at stake.