Making a case for closure

A CASE can be made out for shutting down well over a third of State politicians’ electorate offices – 34 to be exact.

Presently, 91 State MPs have such outlying offices. Too few MPs are based within or close to Parliament House.

Not widely known is that, until 1973, State MPs never had such publicly-funded facilities.

That year, WA followed South Australia by equipping MPs with electorate offices, private secretaries, and the other paraphernalia that makes it so difficult for challengers to unseat incumbents.

Former Labor deputy Premier Mal Bryce was the driving force behind ensuring each WA Lower House MP, (Member of the Legislative Assembly, MLA), was afforded such a facility.

“The first two such offices were Ron Bertram’s in Mt Hawthorn and mine,” Mr Bryce said.

He said that, during the following year, most MLAs acquired one and the new Liberal Government extended this new perk to Upper House MPs, (Members of the Legislative Council, MLC) after 1974.

Mr Bryce said then Labor Premier, the late John Tonkin, doggedly opposed MPs acquiring electorate offices.

“He believed we could do without, claiming he’d done so for several decades,” he said.

But caucus backed Mr Bryce.

“It was pointed out to John that, for about half the time he was in Parliament he’d been a minister, so had an office.”

There’s no doubt MLAs’ offices should be located in their electorates so they can oversee and assist with what are essentially constituent grievance duties, and can lobby bureaucracies, ministers and government and other agencies.

Clearly the pre-1973 situation of MPs using wives as unpaid typists and secretaries was unsatisfactory.

It is desirable that constituents have easy access to their MLA, or MLA’s staffers, who are usually very skilled.

But should this automatically apply to WA’s 34 MLCs? I say no.

Rarely questioned is why MLCs also have such offices.

Surely it would be adequate if all 57 MLAs were to strategically locate their offices within their electorates.

Voters who may feel left out shouldn’t, since emailing facilities now exist and MLAs’ offices can be telephoned from the more isolated corners of electorates using the 1800 facility.

In addition to our 91 State MPs, 27 Federal MPs – 12 Senators and 15 MHRs – also generally have offices in the suburbs or one of the larger regional centres.

One of the latter, Barry Haase, has two electorate offices because his Kalgoorlie seat is so large.

If all take up their electorate office entitlement, WA would provide 119 such precincts.

MPs undoubtedly feel good about being seen among the voters. So what’s the quibble?

Basically it’s that MPs are not primarily elected to be grievance helpers.

They’re there to be legislators, to draw-up wise and far-sighted laws – a task that’s demanding, full time, and difficult.

With 91 State MPs locating themselves in electorates, 34 are duplicating the grievance role, which seriously cuts into their time for their second, that is, legislative role.

MLCs simply should not be driven into taking on time-consuming constituency work.

Up to 34 State electorates thus have two MPs with electorate offices, when one is quite enough, not to mention up to 28 more Federal offices out there.

The 34 MLCs should move out of their electorates, make way for their MLA counterparts, and become full-time specialist legislators.

That means moving them back into Parliament House, to be near each other, the Parliamentary library, specialist legal and other staffers, and their special purpose committee facilities.

More important than the “social worker” duplication consideration is that MLAs are in a chamber – the Legislative Assembly – that, under the Westminster system, is rigidly controlled by cabinet, so they are without a legislative role.

Put bluntly the Lower House is a “talking shop”, a legislative rubber stamp for whatever cabinets decide.

Government MLAs simply have no say beyond the government party room.

Opposition MLAs – by definition they’re in the minority – have no say whatsoever. Governments ignore them. They have no role in the crucial legislative process.

The only really constructive work MLAs, who are not ministers, can do between elections is electorate or constituency work and gear up for the next election.

Not so with the Upper House – the Legislative Council – which isn’t dominated by the governing party’s members.

There, the fate of all legislation is decided.

That chamber’s committees are not dominated by government MPs,

so the legislative process really exists.

Is it asking too much for the 34 MLCs to move away from duplicating electorate work to specialise, for the good of WA, in being legislators?

Is it asking too much for just 34 Western Australians to be full-time legislators?

If it’s not, then Parliament House, not their electorates for so much of their time, is where they ought to be.

Someone has to consider, analyse, and scrutinise legislation. If MLCs don’t do it, who will?

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