23/05/2006 - 22:00

More to this than shopping

23/05/2006 - 22:00


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In February 2005, Western Australians voted 61.4 per cent against seven-days-a-week trading by all retailers.

In February 2005, Western Australians voted 61.4 per cent against seven-days-a-week trading by all retailers.

Fifteen months on, Premier Alan Carpenter has hinted he may move to adopt Sunday trading despite that convincing ‘no’ vote.

Although State Scene and others who backed Sunday trading for all retailers may welcome the premier’s recent statement, that’s no longer the issue.

The question now is the longevity of a majority democratic decision and whether the people’s voice takes precedence over what politicians want.

In other words, democracy, or toe-the-pollies’ line.

It’s no secret Labor didn’t call the referendum because it loves democracy, but rather, for cold blooded party political advantage over the Liberals.

Pre-election polling showed Labor faced defeat, with trading hours seen as a significant, perhaps determining issue in marginal seats.

Labor realised the Liberals, who opposed liberalising retail hours, had the support of cash-flush small supermarket proprietors who wanted to continue legislatively locking-out Coles and Woolworths from Sunday trading.

Those small proprietors had geared-up to fund the Liberals with big dollars for the election campaign to help swing key seats against Labor.

To ensure the Liberal campaign war chest never received those dollars, Labor shrewdly hived-off the Sunday trading issue from the election by announcing the retail trading issue would instead be resolved at referendum.

Once this was announced the wealthy smaller anti-Coles and anti-Woolworths supermarket proprietors contacted former Labor premier Brian Burke – WA’s lobbyist of last resort – to navigate their side of the referendum campaign which, of course, no longer impinged upon the Gallop government’s re-election bid.

But 15 months after Labor successfully sidelined the Sunday trading issue from the election’s agenda, Mr Carpenter hints at perhaps overturning what 61.4 per cent of voters backed.

If this happens, a democratic outcome with 61.4 per cent voter backing would be overturned by a handful of Labor politicians.

Clearly voters could no longer trust any politician-initiated referendum.

To counter such blatant anti-democractic behaviour it’s necessary to empower the citizenry to be able to call, or bring-on, referendums.

Presently, WA can only have referendums when politicians call them, which means a tiny ruling clique within WA’s 91-strong parliamentary contingent decides whether or not the people can vote on laws under which they must live.

That’s unfair, elitist, outdated, and blatantly undemocratic.

Why should two million people come under the heavy-handed thumbs of fewer than 91 individuals who just happen to be politicians?

Why can’t the people, who must live under such laws, have the deciding say?

WA would be far more democratic if at each election we had four, five or more referendum issues before voters, with those referendums proposed by citizens, not politicians.

It’s important to note that this isn’t a novel idea.

Switzerland, for instance, is such a democracy; one in which citizens can initiate national, cantonal (state) and communal (shire) referendums, and do so regularly, with some even held between general election or ballot days.

Swiss politicians are consequently servants of the people, not their masters, as currently applies in WA.

It’s not widely realised that WA twice nearly became like Switzerland, therefore the only true democracy in Australia’s federation.

The first was in 1913 with the John Scaddan-led Labor government, the second in 1988 with the Barry MacKinnon-led Liberals.

Unfortunately, in 1913 the conservative-dominated upper house blocked Scaddan’s attempt to democratise WA, while in 1988 Labor rejected the MacKinnon bid.

Today, just one MP in 91, Liberal Dan Sullivan, backs putting Western Australians on to the same democratic footing as the Swiss.

The others share the anti-democratic views of WA’s 1913 upper house conservatives and 1988 Labor.

Why? The simple answer is that they don’t want their legislating powers diluted.

They want to retain their monopoly say over what the laws Western Australians live under will be, something alien to the democratic Swiss who believe Switzerland is there for its citizenry, not for tiny transient groups of national, cantonal and communal politicians.

The same applies in about half of America’s states with citizen initiated referendums.

Should WA belatedly adopt the Scaddan-MacKinnon path?

Absolutely. And the reason is that, until citizen-initiated referendums become integral to WA’s political and parliamentary practice, we cannot claim to be a democracy.

What then is WA, if not a democracy?

In truth we are now, and have been since self government was gained in 1890, an increasingly encompassing  ballotocracy, not a democracy.

In a ballotocracy citizens are only permitted a very limited say in what their laws will or won’t be.

A ballotocracy gives its citizens one vote every three, four or five years – depending on periods listed in their constitution.

Once election day passes that’s it; until it comes around again in three, four or five years.

In the meantime – between ballots – the citizens live basically at the whim and mercy of a tiny coterie of politicians, who tend to be more responsive to public opinion as next ballot day approaches.

Not so in Switzerland or those American states where citizens can initiate referendums on legislation politicians pass between elections.

In such polities, politicians are far more alert to voters’ wishes because a set percentage or number of voters can bring on a referendum about controversial legislation by collecting and presenting a signatory petition to parliament.

That power makes for a true democracy because all citizens can then vote for or against particular legislation. You can’t get more democratic than to hold constitutionally sanctioned referendums.

Although more desirable than autocracies, ballotocracies come a distant second to a system under which citizen-initiated referendums can be called by the people.

State Scene doesn’t object to Mr Carpenter raising the trading hours issue in a bid to perhaps deflect attention from the embarrassing D’Orazio affair. That’s politics.

What’s objectionable is that neither he nor anyone in the Labor Party shows any sign of wanting to follow in the footsteps of the late John Scaddan, WA Labor’s last true democrat.

Nor does State Scene object to opposition leader Paul Omodei claiming that the trading hours status quo should remain in place.

But why won’t he press for what Mr MacKinnon sought in 1988 – empower the people to call referendums, something only one of his frontbenchers supports?

Since WA gained self-government in 1890, it has adopted six great reforms (see below) that have moved it towards becoming a democracy. But the seventh great democratic reform – citizen-initiated referendums – remains absent despite Labor, in 1913, and the Liberals 75 years later, having sought it.

As important as each of the six reforms was in transforming WA from a limited to a more encompassing ballotocracy, together they do not make WA a democracy – where the people (the demos), not the politicians, have the ultimate say over what becomes law.

For democracy to arise citizens must be empowered to call referendums on legislation passed by a handful of politicians.

Once that happens, Western Australians can stand tall knowing they live in the only democracy in the Australian federation.

Powerless citizens of WA, State Scene urges you to ask your MPs to immediately legislate to transform WA into a democracy, like Messrs Scaddan and MacKinnon sought.

No elephant stamps for guessing their reply – unless, of course, you’re in Mr Sullivan’s electorate of Leschenault.


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