15/10/2008 - 22:00

It should cost to cut and run

15/10/2008 - 22:00


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IN response to State Scene's column of October 2, 'Bailing out for a soft landing', a reader has suggested something should be done to stop the ongoing practice of politicians vacating their seats after general elections.

It should cost to cut and run

IN response to State Scene's column of October 2, 'Bailing out for a soft landing', a reader has suggested something should be done to stop the ongoing practice of politicians vacating their seats after general elections.

One of his objections to this selfish practice is the cost of unnecessary by-elections politicians so often cause by bailing-out from their seats straight after general elections.

The most recent cases of such behaviour federally came with the announcement by three former Howard government ministers soon after November's poll that they wished to embark on newfound careers.

Strangely, those careers didn't seem to be on their horizon just before November's poll, which they hoped the coalition would win so they'd continue as ministers.

And it seems these three culprits - Alexander Downer, Peter McGauran and one-time Nationals leader, Mark Vaile - may be followed by former treasurer turned author, Peter Costello.

In Western Australia, early cutting and running has been commonplace for decades.

The last premier to complete his parliamentary term was Labor's John Tonkin, who lost the 1974 election but remained in parliament until the following election.

No fewer than 10 state MPs resigned prematurely between 1983 and 1986, with a further six between 1986 and 1993, though two in the latter period left for health reasons.

Also noteworthy is that, although Colin Barnett led the Liberals into last month's election, he wouldn't assure reporters at his inaugural leadership press conference that he'd remain Cottesloe's member if Labor retained power.

If WA Nationals leader Brendon Grylls had teamed-up with Labor rather than forming a Lib-Nat partnership, Mr Barnett may have already sparked a Cottesloe by-election.

To reporters he seemed to be saying it was either the premiership or a bailout at the (then) upcoming poll, so the previously endorsed Cottesloe candidate, Deidre Willmot, would be able to start her political career.

By-elections aren't cheap, so MPs shouldn't treat them as convenient playthings.

Although State Scene cannot offer an audited cost per by-election, a price tag of $100,000 is likely.

Currently, political parties bag $1.57 per vote won by their candidates.

With an average electorate having around 22,500 voters, that's about $35,000 straight off the top before administration and other costs begin piling up.

Now, it must be stressed, no-one wants to see gravely ill MPs siting out terms. Quite the contrary; those too ill to fulfil their duties should stand down immediately.

What's objectionable, however, is politicians who contest general elections and then, when they're on the losing side, refuse to complete their terms without good reason, especially if another career suddenly beckons.

The question therefore arises - is there a simple remedy to this problem?

Clearly, the best way to ensure taxpayers don't bear the cost of unnecessary by-elections is by sheeting home responsibility where it belongs.

For this to occur, legislation is needed to empower the WA Electoral Commission to directly charge political parties whose members bring on such by-elections.

Under such an arrangement, say, if Mr Grylls hadn't agreed to the Barnett-led Liberal-Nationals partnership and Mr Barnett subsequently resigned so Ms Willmot could make a bid to enter Parliament, the WAEC would have billed the Liberal Party for the full cost of the Cottesloe by-election.

It's that simple. Under such arrangements, all parties would have a strong incentive to insist that candidates they endorse agree not to resign after general elections.

True, MPs could ignore such calls by their party since the parties, not the MP, would be the entities the WAEC directly billed.

However, to help ensure this doesn't occur the parties could quite easily oblige their candidates to sign as a condition of endorsement contracts stating that each candidate will fully refund their party the cost of premature by-elections that they've caused.

In other words, if a by-election cost the WAEC $100,000, the party of the prematurely retiring MP would be automatically billed, after which that party would seek reimbursement from the departing MP, who would be legally bound under a separately signed contract to come up with the cash.

Under that arrangement MPs would have two options - remain in parliament until terms expire, or pay the full cost to the WAEC, via their party, for any by-election.

Independent candidates would be similarly treated; though they'd be required to sign undertakings directly with the WAEC to meet the full cost of any by-elections they wilfully bring on.

Naturally this remedy shouldn't apply to MPs resigning due to grave illness.

However, in those cases, the WAEC should be able to check claims alleging illness via an independent medical panel making a final assessment of the evidence.

Any reader with another remedy to combat wilfully called by-elections is invited to advise State Scene.

There is, of course, an obvious flaw with this cost-covering remedy, one that can be dubbed the catch-22 blockage.

Clearly it is most unlikely our MPs will agree to make themselves personally liable - via their parties - for recovery of the full cost of by-elections they cause.

They'll want to keep that loophole open, since taxpayers are footing the bill.

When was the last time you met an idealistic MP, one who is likely to put the public good far ahead of personal advantage?

What this means, therefore, is that suggesting MPs impose liability upon themselves for unnecessary by-elections is basically a dead duck under our system of government.

Put otherwise, it's just ain't gunna happen mate - anyone believing otherwise is kidding themselves.

If State Scene is mistaken, then the only way to prove it is for the State Parliament to immediately institute the remedial action recommended above.

Once that's happens an apology, with a 1,000 mea culpas, will immediately follow.

But that's not the end of this sad story since the catch-22 blockage highlights an urgent need for greater voter empowerment, which can only arise with the adoption of direct democratic principles, not so-called representative democracy, which we unfortunately have.

Under the latter the representatives have monopoly control, a stranglehold, over the entire legislative process. Put otherwise, the people are locked out.

In a few paragraphs, under direct democracy, voters can launch binding referendums that compel MPs to enact reforming legislation.

That's the way real democracies such as Switzerland and about half the states of the US operate.

The last time an attempt was made to empower Western Australians so was in 1988 by then Liberal leader, Barry MacKinnon, but Labor ignored his tabled bill.

Previously - back in 1913 - Labor premier John "Happy Jack" Scaddan's government attempted to introduce true democracy.

However, that was blocked by the conservative-dominated upper house, which couldn't bear the thought of the people being empowered, since that would have meant breaking the politicians' monopoly stranglehold over legislation.

You can bet your life that neither the Barnett-led government nor Eric Ripper-led Labor will ever consider this truly democratic path that works so well in Switzerland and so many American states.

Yes, catch-22, again.


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