A legacy of accountability and balance

FORMER Labor deputy premier Mal Bryce’s CV is one most Liberal premiers or deputy premiers would envy.

The same applies to several of his ministerial achievements.

I caught up with Mr Bryce at his Perth home last week to find him packing to move permanently to live near Bunbury.

We first met in December 1965. I was sitting on the verandah of my parents’ Wyalkatchem home and he arrived with a handful of how-to-vote cards.

Then a 21-year old teacher at Merredin High School, he was contesting the Country Party-held seat of Moore, and was campaigning over the hot Christmas holidays.

His campaigning approach was businesslike and friendly.

He re-emerged in 1970 as a Senate candidate and, in 1971, won the State seat of Ascot.

Thereafter, he steadily ascended Labor’s parliamentary ladder – with something of a leftie reputation – to emerge as deputy premier and minister for economic development, defence liaison, and technology in 1983, posts he held until retiring in 1988.

Since then he’s shown there’s life after politics, having held several top jobs, chaired or been a member of seven agencies or councils, and company director five times.

By 1993 Mr Bryce was director of the R&I Bank (now BankWest), Micro Control Systems and Universal Defence Systems.

During this period he was commissioned by the United Nations to advise the democratic Czechoslovak Government of former dissident writer-dramatist President Vaclav Havel on organising public policy and back-up for an emerging small business sector.

As minister from 1983 to 1988, he established Bentley’s Technology Park; the Technology Development Authority; Industrial Supplies Office, Small Business Development Corporation; and the West Perth SciTech Centre.

Then came four years in Ipswich, Queensland, drawing up and ad-ministering a regional economic revival blueprint for an area which no longer was offering sustained growth, its traditional major-employing industries having peaked in the historical sense.

I put it that his major ministerial regret must surely be not having gained the Hawke Government’s multi-billion dollar Collins Class submarine construction contract, won by South Australia.

I found this puzzling at the time in light of Australia’s two-ocean policy, and HMAS Stirling being earmarked for Australia’s submarine fleet.

If WA had won that crucial tussle, its industrial and technological base would now be markedly enhanced.

“Mick Young did that,” Mr Bryce said.

Mick Young, Labor’s controversial South Australian wheeler-dealer, was a Hawke pal.

“There were three involved in that decision – Bob Hawke, Mick Young and defence minister Kim Beazley – take it up with Kim,” he continued.

“We certainly gave it our best shot.”

Although Mr Bryce’s ministerial and post-parliamentary careers place him firmly within a business policy and economic development context, I now regard his major contribution as having been in the crucial governance area – particularly his securing of the Upper House’s present pre-eminent role.

Mr Bryce, in 1972, was a key player in moves to abolish that house, a Labor policy Australia-wide at the time.

Although this drastic move failed, conservative premier Sir Charles Court took this threat so seriously that, by 1978, he’d passed the Constitution Amendment Act, which meant that chamber couldn’t be abolished without majority voter backing at a referendum.

Fifteen years later, as electoral reform minister, Mr Bryce chaperoned through Parliament an electoral reform Bill that instituted proportional representation (PR) at Upper House elections.

PR has meant it is most unlikely that either Labor or the Liberals will ever gain control of this chamber, something conservatives retained for more than a century.

In the future, one or more minor parties – Nationals, Democrats, or the until relatively recently emerged Greens or One Nation – will hold the balance of power, like in the Senate.

This means WA now has one chamber, which is quite independent of cabinet – the executive – something that’s been a major aim of parliamentary democracy advocates for more than 300 years.

What makes this even more interesting and far-reaching is that today it is post-Charles Court conservatives who are increasingly moving towards wanting the Upper House abolished.

Liberal leader Colin Barnett has been emotionally wedded to abolitionism for years and Nationals leader Max Trenorden and Independent Liberal Phil Pendal are recent converts to abolitionism.

The irony is that, while Sir Charles Court’s move was designed to block Labor Governments abolishing that chamber, it now ensures conservatives cannot do it without winning majority voters’ backing.

And that’s something they’ll find difficult to get, with so many Liberal and Labor voters distrusting cabinets having unchecked power.

Moreover, Greens, Democrat and One Nation voters know that their representation lies solely in multi-member Upper House seats, due to the PR voting system Mr Bryce adopted.

It’s harder for young, non-main-stream minority parties to win single-member Lower House seats.

Time will tell if Mr Bryce is recognised for this, ahead of his more utilitarian achievements.


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