01/03/2005 - 21:00

Joe Poprzeczny: State Scene - Time true democrats took a stand

01/03/2005 - 21:00


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Colin Barnett’s tactically motivated promise to build a $2 billion-plus Kimberley-to-Perth aqueduct wasn’t the most far-reaching conservative promise of the election campaign.

Colin Barnett’s tactically motivated promise to build a $2 billion-plus Kimberley-to-Perth aqueduct wasn’t the most far-reaching conservative promise of the election campaign.

This dubious honour would have to go to his pledge to amend the Constitution so that Western Australia’s currently unfair electoral laws, which diminish the value of metropolitan votes vis-a-vis rural ones, can only be scrapped after most electors have backed such a change at a referendum.

Political scientists have a word for this favouring of one voting group over another – malapportionment.

In the lead-up to Saturday’s poll, Mr Barnett said: “If elected to government ... we will amend the Constitution Act of 1889 so that should any future government want to bring fundamental change to our electoral system they’ll only be able to do so if they convince the people through a referendum.”

Labor’s master strategist, Jim McGinty, who led the failed and costly crusade against WA’s pro-rural and anti-urban electoral recipe, reacted predictably by condemning the Barnett plan.

“Constitutions are about protecting the rights of all people,” he said.

“They espouse the great principles of liberty, equality, fraternity.

“Mr Barnett wants to write inequality into the WA Constitution.

“We’ll be the only place in the world where inequality of citizens is written into our Constitution as one of the principles upon which we operate in this state.”

Now, while some of Mr McGinty’s claims have validity, he’s again shown himself to be politically short sighted.

Before exposing his myopia, State Scene will provide some background to the Barnett ploy of constitutionally enshrining malapportionment.

Just as he borrowed his $2 billion-plus Kimberley aqueduct plan from former Labor water resources minister Ernie Bridge, so too is his malapportionment referendum ploy a borrowed item.

But this time round it’s come from his side of politics.

The first time referendums were used to protect something conservatives deeply cherished was in 1978.

Attorney-general at the time, Ian Medcalf, and premier Sir Charles Court were acutely concerned about Labor’s desire to scrap the position of governor plus the upper house.

To ensure Labor MPs realised neither aim, Mr Medcalf amended Section 73 of the Constitution so such goals could only be achieved if most voters backed them at referendums.

Put differently, WA could only do away with the vice-regal position if 50 per cent plus one elector voted for it.

And similarly, it could only scrap the upper house – to be like Queensland, the Northern Territory, and the Australian Capital Territory – if electors gave it the all-clear at a referendum.

In other words the people, rather than a small group of MPs with majorities in both houses of parliament, became the potential arbiters of the existence of a vice-regal and the upper house.

Now, since Labor has never simultaneously controlled both houses it has been unable to bring on such referendums, so both institutions have been saved, as conservative administrations are unlikely to call such referendums.

Mr Barnett was angling for the same catch-22 outcome for Labor on malapportionment, since his side of politics desperately wants it retained.

By opting for the tried and tested referendum-blocking 1978 Medcalf-Court Section 73 formula he’d basically be setting-up an identical ‘heads I win, tails you lose’ bind for Labor since, and this is crucial, only politicians can call referendums in WA.

But note, in Switzerland and many American states it’s the people who can bring on referendums, since, under their political arrangements, direct democracy, or citizen initiated referendums, (CIR) is practiced.

We can, however, be sure Mr Barnett hasn’t suddenly become an admirer of Swiss-style direct democracy.

We’ll return to this crucial point shortly.

Mr McGinty’s predictable knee-jerk response to the planned Barnett ploy, however, was to resort to French Revolutionary sloganeering – liberty, equality, fraternity – showing that he’d missed the point of it all.

The really pertinent question is whether Mr Barnett’s self-serving  ‘heads I win, tails you lose’ arrangement is desirable.

In one sense it is, because it potentially (but only potentially) intends giving voters a say on electoral laws, which is more democratic than the present system where only MPs decide whether or not WA’s malapportionment should or shouldn’t be scrapped.

However, where the Barnett ploy is most undesirable is that the Medcalf-Court formula would virtually guarantee malapportionment remains a permanent feature of WA’s electoral laws, since non-Labor administrations will never call a referendum.

And if Labor gains a lower house majority but fails to gain an upper house one, the conservatives would block any referendum Labor attempted to call.

This ‘heads I win, tails you lose’ ploy therefore means malapportionment, which favours the conservatives, survives indefinitely.

Now, that’s simply unfair, unjust, and downright inequitable.

It’s because of this gross unfairness that State Scene is unimpressed with Mr Barnett’s proposed phony self-serving referendum formula.

But is it possible to eradicate the anti-democratic element of the Barnett ploy?

Thankfully the answer is yes.

Here’s how.

All that the unimaginative Mr McGinty needs do is tell Mr Barnett Labor will back his referendum option on condition that voters, not just MPs, can bring on referendums, as Swiss and some American state electors can do.

In other words, what Labor should do is back the Barnett idea that people decide the fate of malapportionment by referendum on condition that the initiation of such referendums is itself democratised. That is, that the people could call them.

Such a move would truly test the sincerity of Mr Barnett on whether he’s a democrat or not.

State Scene’s guess is he and his Liberal-National colleagues would go into a tizz over such a democratic proposal and promptly reject it.

And the reason? Because hardly any of them is truly a democrat.

What they believe in is the people getting just one vote every four years, after which only WA’s 91 politicians get a say on making laws.

Political scientists call this representative democracy, or thin democracy.

The opposite, where people can bring on votes – referendums – on laws through CIR, as practiced in Switzerland and in some American states, is direct democracy.

In the Swiss and those American cases MPs have had their monopoly control over law-making diluted, that is, democratised, by referendum legislation that empowers the people to call them.

So there you have it Mr McGinty.

If you wish to see malapportionment, which so favours the conservatives, done away with, move for the adoption of CIR, direct democracy, by diluting Mr Barnett’s and your monopoly power over calling referendums.

State Scene can’t think of a better time and a better issue over which to commence this democratising of WA’s stodgy parliament that so monopolises legislating.

If Mr McGinty doesn’t promptly embark on such a path he’ll only show himself to being as undemocratic as Mr Barnett’s planned Section 73 amendment really is.

Over to you Mr McGinty.


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