19/04/2005 - 22:00

Joe Poprzeczny: State Scene - McGinty readies for his final roll

19/04/2005 - 22:00

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The Gallop Government’s historic One Vote One Value Bill will be debated in the upper house next week, with voting on it to take place a fortnight or so later.

The Gallop Government’s historic One Vote One Value Bill will be debated in the upper house next week, with voting on it to take place a fortnight or so later.

If Attorney-General Jim McGinty convinces the required 18 upper house MPs into backing it, or an amended version of it, WA’s long era of malapportioned lower house seats – at least outside the mining and pastoral region – will finally end.

And if that happens it will be markedly more difficult for the conservative Liberals and Nationals to dislodge Labor at the 2009 election.

Some within conservative ranks even suspect it could take them up to three elections – until 2017 – to regain power.

By then current Liberal leader, Matt Birney, now 35 years old, will be a couple of years short of 50. True, that’s still young enough for him to be a long-serving premier, but will the Liberals stick by a two-time loser that long?

Labor currently holds 32 lower house seats – a four-seat margin.

State Scene’s calculations suggest that, with the McGinty bill as the basis of WA’s electoral arrangements, Labor would boost its ranks by at least six seats.

This means the conservatives could expect to win, on current returns, 21 seats compared with their present 25, two of which are held by independents – Drs Liz Constable and Janet Woollard.

That’s a big fillip to Labor’s grip on power.

In swing terms the McGinty bill boosts Labor’s hold by about 4 per cent, a nice additional margin for contests that in recent times have been closely run affairs.

For this Mr McGinty deserves a well-earned, even if costly to taxpayers, pat on the back from colleagues.

But with that said, it’s still premature to contemplate breaking out the bubbly because victory is far from assured.

The reason Labor’s situation remains precarious is that, of the 18 votes required to transform his bill into law, only 12 are certainties, all of them Labor MPs.

The remaining six – the doubtful half dozen – include five Greens and Independent Liberal Alan Cadby, a long-time secret one-vote-one-value backer who the Liberal Party foolishly disendorsed at last year’s pre-selections. Not surprisingly, Mr Cadby has opted to now follow his convictions.

The problem Mr McGinty faces with the doubtful half dozen is that they fall into two ideological groups – five leftist Greens in one and right-of-centre Mr Cadby the other.

If the Greens can’t agree with Mr McGinty on any aspect of his bill but Mr Cadby does, the bill goes nowhere since Labor would be five votes short of the needed absolute majority of 18.

And vice versa. If Mr Cadby cannot agree with Mr McGinty on any aspect of his bill but the Greens do, the bill again goes nowhere, since Labor would be one vote short of the needed absolute majority of 18.

Clearly, Mr McGinty has no leeway with the doubtful half dozen.

He must have each of that half dozen agreeing otherwise he misses his best chance yet of ridding WA of the lower house’s malapportionment, something that’s very dear to him.

Let’s not forget that while Labor opposition leader between 1994 and 1998 Mr McGinty convinced caucus to proceed with a High Court challenge to WA’s malapportionment.

After losing in Canberra he approached the Liberal government to cover Labor’s legal costs, which was promptly refused, thereby forcing him to tell caucus colleagues he and they were now each personally liable for several thousand dollars to pay Labor’s lawyers. Little wonder he quietly resigned as leader soon after and Geoff Gallop took over.

Despite that ignominious outcome, as attorney-general in the first Gallop Government, he again went to the High Court and again lost, but only after he first lost before WA’s Supreme Court.

All Mr McGinty now has left, therefore, is to negotiate with the Greens and Mr Cadby, which although not an assured path looks to be more productive one than splitting legalistic hairs before wigged judges.

But if he fails to convince or coax the ideologically different Greens and Mr Cadby into backing him he’ll probably be forced to kiss his bill goodbye until at least 2009, and probably forever.

After May 22 this year the upper house will be have 15 voting Labor MPs and two Greens, who’ll confront 15 Liberals and one National, so 17-16, or one short of the required 18 votes, if both remaining Greens were to back him.

For Mr McGinty and Labor the coming fortnight is crucial. It’s crunch time.

He desperately needs all of the Greens and Mr Cadby on side.

Over the coming fortnight Mr McGinty must be concilliatory when that’s needed, reasonable when that’s called for, and convincing if that’s what’s required while negotiating with the doubtful half dozen.

Wouldn’t you think the Liberals – with 11 upper house MPs – would open talks with him to stymie any Labor-Greens/Cadby deal?

That would put the Liberal back inside the tent, rather than outside and hoping any McGinty-Greens/Cadby deal doesn’t damage them too badly.

But history suggests this won’t happen.

In 1987, the government of Brian Burke launched confidential talks with the Nationals to introduce proportional representation into the upper house after the Liberals wouldn’t talk.

That left the Liberals high and dry.

Year 2005 promises to be a re-run of that, and of the 1920s, when the Liberals (then called Nationalists) also refused to discuss electoral reform.

Then, six years later, in Professor David Black’s words, they were “obliged to accept [Labor’s] 1928 amendments and the 1929 redistribution on a less favourable basis than would have been the case in 1923.”

Moreover, an insightful 2002 political science Masters thesis by Mike Pepperday that’s found in the Parliamentary Library considers ongoing Liberal failures to confront electoral issues.

“The Liberal paralysis on vote weighting is pathological,” Pepperday writes.

“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.

“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.”

Over to you Mr Birney.

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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