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More power to the people

DO Western Australia’s 91 MPs wield too much power over longstanding community customs and traditions?

Mark Twain would probably say they do, as it was he who penned that one liner about people not being safe while legislatures were in session.

The determined manner in which Attorney-General Jim McGinty has, among other things, moved to ensure homosexual couples can adopt children and gain access to in-vitro fertilisation is prompting some to believe Twain perhaps understated matters.

Mr McGinty can be confident his planned changes to the Family Court Act and the Acts Amendment (Lesbian and Gay Law Reform) Bill will soon become law.

The reason is that it’s party policy and Labor maintains tight discipline over its MPs – they must vote as caucus dictates, otherwise they lose endorsement.

Add to this the fact that WA’s five Greens MPs are set to back him since their de facto leader, Giz Watson, strongly endorses it.

Opposition and hesitancy within Labor ranks and from conservative members matters little since Labor dominates the Lower House and, with the Greens, the Upper House, on all issues requiring simple majorities.

Whether 1.9 million Western Australians like or dislike the McGinty social engineering/sexual package, they’re going to have to lump it.

But this has prompted some to query whether a handful of MPs should have so much unchallengable power over so many.

This view is bringing them to consider whether it’s perhaps time WA adopted what’s called Citizens’ Initiated Referenda (CIR).

The briefest definition of CIR I’ve seen is: “The right, probably constitutionally entrenched, of citizens to demand that a binding referendum be held”.

Such a demand is launched by petition arranged by a convening group and signed by a specified number of citizens.

In WA, with its 1.2 million voters, a 50,000-signature petition would probably be ideal since it’s too high for frivolous issues to go to referendum but isn’t unachievable.

Thereafter, a statewide referendum follows, so voters, not MPs, become the ultimate arbiters of whether a particular piece of controversial legislation becomes the law people must endure.

Clearly such a constitutional requirement removes politicians’ monopoly over decreeing what shall or shall not be the law since the citizenry gets a direct say.

Switzerland, for more than 150 years, and half of America’s States, have CIR.

Federally, Australia borrowed the idea of Politicians’ Initiated Referenda (PIR) from Switzerland, but our national founding fathers – politicians all – studiously avoided enshrining the more democratic CIR in Australia’s Constitution.

Western Australians have no control over their constitution, which, with two exceptions – status of the Governor and reduction or abolition of either Parliamentary chamber – may be changed at will by Parliament.

CIR is the opposite, since it bestows power upon citizens to launch referenda and block introduction of what may be unpopular, minority imposed laws.

It’s a power that overrides politicians under minority sway.

With all laws under threat of being challenged at referenda, politicians must govern more cautiously.

According to an article by Canberra academics George Williams and Geraldine Chin titled “The Failure of CIR Proposals in Australia: New Directions for Popular Participation”, Australia has witnessed 35 bids to institute CIR, two of them in WA.

The last was in 1988 – during the WA Inc era – when the Liberals sought it.

“The Referendum (Repeal of Acts and Regulations) Bill 1988 provided for a restricted, but binding, form of voters’ veto which would enable voters to petition for the repeal of any legislation for three years after its enactment,” Watson and Chin say.

Somewhere along the line the Liberals scrapped it, for no effort was made to introduce it during the Court-Cowan years.

But Labor was first on the scene with CIR.

“In 1913 the Labor Premier and Treasurer, John Scaddan, introduced the Initiative and Referendum Bill, which provided for a legislative and constitutional initiative and voters’ veto,” Watson and Chin say.

“The Bill was passed by the Legislative Assembly, but rejected by the (conservative controlled) Legislative Council.”

But imagine if either Scaddan’s 1913 Labor Bill, or its 1988 Liberal successor, was law today.

Where would CIR put Mr McGinty?

We can be confident his Bills would be unlikely to become law because they command so little mainstream community respect and support. He’d be out on a weak, shaky limb.

There’s no reason WA shouldn’t adopt constitutionally enshrined CIR.

The Liberals recently favoured it, Labor pioneered it 89 years ago, the Democrats, in the Senate, twice sought to enshrine it federally in the 1980s.

Many right-of-centre One Nation backers have long promoted CIR, believing it enhances democracy.

That leaves the conservative Nationals and radical Greens out on a limb, not backing democracy being extended so citizens have a direct say not only on who governs them, but what happens to valued customs and traditions.

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