26/04/2005 - 22:00

Joe Poprzeczny: State Scene - Failure to act may prove costly

26/04/2005 - 22:00


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With the upper house still debating Jim McGinty’s One Vote One Value Bill, which some Liberal MPs and all Nationals view unfavourably, it’s worth considering several less publicised aspects of the ongoing issue of vote weighting in rural seats.

With the upper house still debating Jim McGinty’s One Vote One Value Bill, which some Liberal MPs and all Nationals view unfavourably, it’s worth considering several less publicised aspects of the ongoing issue of vote weighting in rural seats.

Last week, State Scene quoted Professor David Black on how both conservative parties had, over 80 years ago, been unable to grapple with this question.

When such legislation was on parliament’s agenda in the early 1920s it was pushed into the too-hard basket.

They simply couldn’t decide and eventually, in Professor Black’s words, found themselves "obliged to accept [Labor’s] 1928 amendments and the 1929 redistribution on a less favourable basis than would have been the case in 1923".

During most of the 1980s they again dillydallied, stonewalling efforts by the Labor government of Brian Burke to trim back the extent that vote weighting discriminated against urban voters.

This time, however, the Nationals opted to strike a secret deal with Labor that resulted in fundamental restructuring of the upper house’s voting system by adoption of proportional representation because the then Hendy Cowan-led Nationals believed would ensure them the balance of power in that chamber.

One, but only one, reason that deal was able to be struck was that Mr Cowan got along very well with Mr Burke.

Another was that Mr Cowan’s deputy, Matt Stephens, pioneered the idea of electing WA’s upper house on proportional representation lines.

He did this after looking around the world for a system that most favoured parties with small voter bases, like the Nationals, and simultaneously weakened mass voter-backed parties like Labor and the Liberals in legislatures.

Proportional representation best met that requirement.

But the Nationals also ended up being mistaken, since the Greens unexpectedly emerged to hold the balance of power in that chamber.

By breaking ranks the Nationals left their long-time coalition partners high and dry, somewhat like Labor had left both conservative parties up a dry creek in 1928-29.

That Nationals break was to prompt one political scientist, Mike Pepperday, who, in 2002 completed a Masters thesis analysing the upper house’s adoption of Mr Stephens’ proportional representation model, to, among other things, conclude: "The Liberal paralysis on vote-weighting is pathological.

"The party failed to tackle genuine reform during the Charles Court years, and was unable to make up its mind on one vote one value during the 1990s and presumably the party will eventually again be obliged to accept a Labor plan," he continued.

"A deeper cause of the malaise lies with the party’s structurally-determined dependence on the leader and the corresponding endemic instability of Liberal leadership when in opposition."

The reason the conservative parties – either in coalition and governing or separately in opposition – differ on vote weighting is that it impacts differently on their MPs.

For Nationals MPs it’s simply a case of backing it no matter what, since it offers more MPs than warranted from their rural voter base.

Things aren’t as clear-cut for the Liberals.

Rural-based Liberal MPs – the so-called push from the bush – invariably favour it for the same reason as their Nationals colleagues.

But city-based Liberal MPs generally aren’t as convinced and can be of two minds.

They favour vote weighting since it provides more non-Labor MPs than their voter-backing warrants.

But it also means more Nationals MPs than warranted by their voter numbers.

And that really rubs when coalition governments emerge and some city-based Liberal MPs find themselves missing becoming ministers since the Nationals insist, as a condition of joining a coalition, that they gain more ministers than their votes warrant.

That’s a real and ongoing rub for Liberals, one their parliamentary leaders must keep a tight lid on.

Liberal leader Sir Charles Court, like his predecessors, kept this problem at bay.

Not widely known is that his son, Richard, briefly fumbled it when a group of generally city-based Liberals, in November 1995, managed to bring this over-favouring of especially the Nationals to a head at a joint party meeting.

And the restless Liberals managed to pull-off a limited victory at that tense get-together.

After the meeting a 10-paragraph press statement was released with paragraph five reading: "In principle, agreement has been reached on a system which would divide the State’s electoral enrolment by 57 and allow for variations of plus or minus 20 per cent."

The 57 is derived from the number of lower house seats.

Presently a single division sum, using 57, isn’t made because WA is divided into two voting zones – metropolitan, that has been allocated 34 seats, and non-metropolitan with 23 seats – meaning two divisions are made with fewer voters in non-metropolitan seats.

That’s the essence of vote weighting, the favouring of rural voters in sparsely populated non-metropolitan WA so there are more MPs there than warranted.

By moving to one statewide division the city-based Liberals managed at the November 1995 joint party meeting to get the conservatives to finally move to scrap this crucial vote-weighting element.

But with this victory they sustained two crucial defeats.

Firstly, they agreed to the Nationals’ insistence on having a voter "variation of plus or minus 20 per cent" between seats.

What such a huge variation meant was that non-metropolitan seats could be so devised that they’d have up to 40 per cent fewer voters than city seats, meaning still more rural seats than warranted.

And secondly, and even worse, the city-based Liberals never followed up on their victory of dividing by 57.

The historic November 28 1995 joint party room meeting was, therefore, to be the first and the last time this issue was seriously considered.

Nothing was ever done to electoral legislation during 1996, the year Mr Court called an early election that ended his first government.

And nothing happened between December 1996, when the election was held, and February 2001, when Gallop-led Labor took over.

In other words the Nationals and the Liberal push from the bush won out by duck shoving, as usual.

The push from the bush therefore snatched victory from the jaws of defeat by delaying, as happened in 1923.

But 10 years after 1995 the vote-weighting issue has once again returned.

Mr McGinty is finally in a position, if he convinces former upper house Liberal, now Independent, Alan Cadby, and the five upper house Greens, who together hold the balance of power in that chamber, to back his bill, which they’ve indicated they'll consider open mindedly.

May 2005 is therefore set to be a re-run of 1928-29.

Or, to modify Professor Black’s lines slightly, the conservatives again face the prospect of being obliged to accept Mr McGinty’s redistribution on a less favourable basis than would have been the case if they’d acted in 1995.


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