13/07/2004 - 22:00

Joe Poprzeczny - State Scene: Getting the timing just right

13/07/2004 - 22:00


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The Gallop Government’s recent reluctant admission that it won’t continue pressing for fixed-term parliaments comes hard on the heels of its reneging on the proposed one-vote-one-value legislation.

The Gallop Government’s recent reluctant admission that it won’t continue pressing for fixed-term parliaments comes hard on the heels of its reneging on the proposed one-vote-one-value legislation.

This belated jettisoning of Labor’s proposed fixed-term legislation is best explained by Dr Gallop’s, and leftist factional chief Jim McGinty’s, uncertainty about the outcome of the forthcoming election.

Retaining the power to call elections whenever means Labor infuses a degree of doubt into conservative ranks.

A braver, consistent, and more idealistic government would have thrown such timidity and manipulative yearnings to the wind, and instead stuck doggedly to principles.

Not so the Gallop-McGinty duo.

For them, retaining power until 2009, and hopefully beyond, takes precedence over all else.

That’s given precedence over what they’ve told party faithful and voters was essential for Western Australia’s democratic practice.

That said, it’s difficult to understand why they initially moved to institute fixed-terms, so that elections would henceforth be held on the third Saturday of every fourth February.

Labor’s decision to embark on a one-vote-one-value campaign is more easily understood.

After all, while Labor MPs probably don’t realise it, that was a key plank of Britain’s heroic 19th century equivalent of Poland’s Solidarity Movement, the Chartists, some of whose leaders were jailed and even transported as convicts to Australia for promoting such democratic principles.

Furthermore, Labor is clearly disadvantaged by the allocation of far fewer voters in rural seats.

But the Gallop-McGinty duo has even dropped pursuing this now that election day approaches by refusing to seize the offer of renegade MP Alan Cadby, who recently resigned from the Liberal Party, to ensure passage of their one-vote-one-value legislation through the upper house this year.

So why did they ever bother moving for fixed-terms?

State Scene queries their motives in taking such a stand, though not because it lacked inherent value.

Quite the contrary, in fact.

State Scene favours fixed-terms if for no other reason than the belief that governments shouldn’t have the added advantage of being able to call elections whenever they believe the time is ripe for them, thereby manoeuvring themselves into getting a jump on oppositions. Incumbency is advantage enough.

However, it’s instructive to consider WA’s elections pattern since the late 19th century – the past 114 years – when representative government was instituted. Such a survey shows one would be hard-pressed arguing Western Australian governments have tended to move to gain unfair advantage over oppositions.

Both conservative and left-of-centre governments have generally played quite straight bats on calling elections, particularly over more recent decades.

WA’s first election was held during December 1890; the second during June 1894; the third over April-May 1897; and the fourth in April 1901.

The 1904 election was in June, while 1905’s was during October-November.

The reason for two months being shown is that WA’s earlier elections were conducted on different days in different seats – a practice that persisted, in the north-west until 1930.

WA’s 1930, 1933, 1936 and 1939 elections were held in March, April, February and March, respectively.

The next came on November 20 1943, and this was exceptional for two reasons. The first reason is that an election wasn’t due that year.

It had, in fact, been due in March 1942, 18 months earlier, but wasn’t held then since March 1942 was the month after Singapore fell to the Japanese, resulting in the capture and internment of tens of thousands of Australian service personnel.

Western Australians in March 1942 were more focused on contemplating where they’d hide if Japanese units landed at Jurien Bay, where many expected them to show up.

Electioneering was therefore post-poned during these dark days.

The 1947, 1950, 1953, 1956, 1959, 1962, 1965, 1968, 1971, 1974, 1977, 1980, 1983, 1986, 1989, and 1993 contests were held over the February-April period, meaning reversion to the consistency of the four elections of 1930-39. Of the 16 held between 1947 and 1993 nine were in February, six in March, and one in April.

However, 1996’s was on December 14, two months ahead of an expected February date, so similar to the exceptional wartime contest of November 20 1943.

That election was called early by Premier Richard Court, who caught then new Labor leader Dr Gallop and his predecessor, Mr McGinty, as well as the media and his conservative colleagues completely off-guard.

This probably explains the Gallop-McGinty knee-jerk response that sparked their now discontinued move to legislatively fix elections for February, that is, after children return to school so teachers can be polling booth officers at schools.

The next came in 2001, and was again held in February, with Dr Gallop toppling Mr Court.

This summary shows that, since 1930 (so for nearly three-quarters of WA’s parliamentary history), elections were usually held either in February, March or April, but predominantly February.

There are only two exceptions, November 1943, and the unexpected Court Government’s pre-Christmas 1996 call that so wrong-footed the Gallop-McGinty duo, meaning February had virtually become the traditional month.

But neither Dr Gallop nor Mr McGinty will allow being so badly wrong-footed late in 1996 to get in their way of boosting their chances, even if only marginally, of being re-elected this time around, now that they’re calling the shots. Now they hold power, they want to keep the conservatives guessing over whether Labor opts for February 2005 or perhaps December 2004, or even a month or so earlier.

In other words, despite all earlier pontificating about the need for fixed terms so governments can’t be opportunistic, Labor’s flexible duo wants to retain one over the opposition.

Hardly consistent, Dr Gallop, and hardly fair Mr McGinty.


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