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Conservatives’ plan shows lack of control

WA’S Upper House, the Legislative Council, is under attack once again.

This time the move against it comes not from the ALP, but from conservatives – Liberals and Nationals – some of whom want it abolished.

Some, undoubtedly, will see a certain irony here.

For more than a century WA conservatives dominated the Upper House, so during those decades they doggedly defended its existence.

Now, after having lost that control, steadily growing numbers of conservatives are calling for its scrapping.

WA’s conservative leadership, Liberal Colin Barnett, and National Max Trenorden, have surfaced as abolitionists.

And Independent Liberal, once a Liberal Party powerbroker and former Upper House MP, Phil Pendal, has joined them.

Interestingly, all are in the Lower House, with Mr Pendal becoming an abolitionist only since departing the Upper House.

Mr Trenorden adopted abolitionism only after the Nationals found themselves with just one MLC – two fewer than One Nation and four less than the Greens.

Mr Barnett has been emotionally wedded to abolishing the Upper House far longer.

Recently, Mr Pendal said: “We have arrived at a point in WA when we should be seriously looking at a unicameral Parliament that would not mean the abolition of the Upper House or the Lower House, but the abolition of both and their re-emergence under our constitutional framework as one House of, perhaps, 85 members.”

Mr Trenorden told a parliamentary committee: “I will now be an advocate of abolishing the Upper House. . . if there must be 93 MPs I would much prefer them all to be in the Lower House.”

Abolition was last attempted in 1972 when future Labor deputy premier, Malcolm Bryce, teamed-up with long-time abolitionist and later Labor Electoral Affairs Minister, Arthur Tonkin. They wanted the Upper House disbanded and a single chamber of 81 MPs created.

It’s worth noting that the Bryce-Tonkin move was in step with long-held ALP centralist ideology.

Labor, just after World War I, adopted the single all-powerful house – unicameralism – platform that included calls to scrap Australia’s Senate, something Western Australians and South Australians and Taswegians understandably saw as a Sydney-Melbourne power grab.

That conclusion was drawn not only because the man who engineered inclusion of centralism in Labor’s plank was Melbourne socialist lawyer Maurice Blackburn, father of Labor’s equally disastrous socialisation platform.

Except in Queensland, however, that platform was unrealised.

Throughout this time conservatives Australia-wide held fast in their support of dual chambers, and most voters supported them.

Now, three WA conservatives – two of them party leaders, mind you – have broken ranks by adopting Labor’s discarded post-Great War plank.

Unicameral backers generally want swift, few questions asked, unhindered legislative action like, say, the Gallop-Ripper move for a premium property tax.

Unicameralism generally means winners taking all, especially if there are single-member electorates, as exist in Queensland, Northern Ireland and Papua New Guinea.

Chambers like WA’s Lower House are utterly useless, compliant venues because, once elections are over and numbers known, the majority group has total control until next election.

After elections, all non-cabinet Lower House MPs could toddle off to their electorates until next election because what the government – via cabinet and party discipline – decides invariably passes through the Lower House, where debates are just charades.

Logically, all Bills could by-pass the Lower House and go straight to the Upper House, where no single party dominates.

Single-member electorate chambers – like WA’s Lower House – are cabinet rubber stamps, which is precisely what the Bryce-Tonkin move set out to create with 81 MPs and it’s what the Barnett-Trenorden-Pendal push seeks.

There’s no doubt about it, having single chambers can mean quicker, swifter legislation, since there’s little incentive to compromise or negotiate with doubters.

But is that desirable?

Presently the Upper House – where no single party dominates because MPs are elected under the proportional voting system – serves as a check on the ever-compliant government-dominated Lower House, which is so tightly controlled by cabinets of the day through party discipline.

WA’s Upper House is now like Australia’s Senate.

It’s the chamber where laws are, in fact, made – not simply reviewed – through negotiation and investigation because of committees that aren’t and can’t be dominated by a governing party.

In the Lower House, Bills are steamrolled and guillotined through and dissenting oppositions ignored.

The Upper House performs its law-making task because minority parties or independents can and have surfaced holding the balance of power, meaning they cannot be ignored.

Yet, just as this largely unnoticed democratic check on unlimited power has surfaced in WA, leading conservatives want this chamber abolished.

Let’s hope they – like their Labor predecessors – don’t get their way.

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