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Costly preference for political games

WA’S newly elected Legislative Councillors (MLCs) held their inaugural sitting yesterday.

Among the 34-strong contingent were WA’s first ever One Nation MLCs, three of them.

Copies of an anonymous 70-page document titled “State Election 2001” is doing the rounds of Liberal MPs’ offices.

It claims to answer why the Liberals performed so badly in February’s poll, and contends preferencing One Nation ahead of Labor would have saved them.

But its persistently caustic tone has meant most readers quickly guessed the ex-Liberal author’s identity – he’s now called “the bitter scribbler” – with some believing he advises One Nation.

The document, throughout, carries a pro-One Nation slant.

Leaving that aside, the scribbler raises the interesting point that the Legislative Council’s shift to a leftist majority (13 Labor, five Greens) is part of a historic turning point in WA’s political history.

“One Nation won three Council seats and, in so doing, took two of these from the Nationals and one from the Liberals. One Nation’s preferences were responsible for the Greens taking two seats from the Liberals,” it says.

“The effect of these results is that for the first time in 108 years a Conservative Government has lost control of both Houses of the WA Parliament.”

Dramatically put but hardly the full picture. The conservatives lost control of the Council at Election 1996, the year (then) Premier Richard Court boosted conservative numbers in the Legislative Assembly.

Even for a time before 1993 the conservatives weren’t guaranteed control because one of their MLCs, Reg Davies, left the Liberal Party and, as an independent, held the balance of power.

Mr Davies, a former SAS officer, tended to back his conservative colleagues, which has resulted in most forgetting him as an independent, but he couldn’t be taken for granted.

At the 1996 contest Labor emerged with 12 MLCs, the Greens three and Democrats two – 17 altogether – the same as the Liberals and Nationals.

But because the conservatives had to provide the Council’s president they, at that point, effected the historic turnaround and lost control of that chamber after more than a century. One Nation wasn’t involved.

This arose, in part, because of electoral changes adopted by Labor. Another factor was the continued fracturing of the three major party voting pattern that has dominated Australian political life for much of the post-World War II period.

The emergence of the occasional independent was one thing, but the not-insignificant rise of Donald Chipp’s mildly left-of-centre Democrats and the hard line leftist Greens manifested itself by their capturing Council seats through preference deals.

Nothing, however, remains static in politics, not even in WA’s once staid Council.

In August 1999 – just 27 months after the conservatives lost historic control – Labor MLC Mark Nevill did what Mr Davies had done eight years earlier.

He left the Labor Party and, as well as becoming an independent, gained the balance of power in that powerful chamber.

He’s far from a conservative, however, and on several crucial issues voted against those who see themselves as progressives – Labor, Greens and Democrats.

To further complicate matters, another Labor MLC, Tom Helm, also left the ALP. But he invariably backed Labor, whereas Mr Nevill was an open-minded independent.

With Mr Nevill holding the balance of power, the Court Government was able to sell-off Westrail Freight and Altina Gas – two enormously important and farsighted moves – on behalf of WA taxpayers.

Westrail Freight was sold to the Genesee & Wyoming and Wesfarmers joint venture for $585 million. Alinta Gas went to Utilicorp and United Energy (45 per cent) and the public (55 per cent) with total proceeds reaching $967 million.

Both publicly-owned enterprises faced the prospect of interstate and international competitors entering the WA market under the terms of the new national competition policy, meaning if such challenges weren’t met successfully, taxpayers would have been left holding two failed, debt-ridden ventures.

With the crucial Council vote for both privatisations taken late last year, the conservatives removed those risks to taxpayers just in the nick of time against opposition from the so-called “progressives”, so something for which Mr Nevill, especially, must be forever commended.

Now, a theme running through the scribbler’s document is that One Nation is somehow a fount of marked political knowledge.

Not said is that if One Nation had preferenced the Liberals ahead of the Greens, just in the agricultural and mining regions, there would now be two fewer Greens and two more Liberal MLCs. And that would mean One Nation today holding the balance of power, not the Greens.

One Nation’s MLCs undoubtedly will be reminded of this each time the Greens ensure Labor legislation passes right up to May 22 2005.

If they’d been wiser – not blind disciples of distant Pauline Hanson’s vacuous smart Alec “I want to get the bastards out” philosophy – they, not the Greens, would now be in Parliament’s (not just the Legislative Council’s) box seat.

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