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Politics again proves it’s a numbers game

THE wisecrack that “whoever you vote for, a politician always wins” is true by definition.

Rarely highlighted, however, is the fact that WA’s State MPs have, in relatively recent times, developed a propensity for boosting their numbers.

At the beginning of the 20th century WA had 50 Legislative Assembly members (MLAs) and 30 Legislative Councillors (MLCs).

That 80-strong parliamentary contingent was probably already overly generous for the size of WA’s then tiny population.

A century later WA had 57 MLAs and 34 MLCs, an increase of 11 pollies, so, on average, an extra MP every nine years.

Quite a solid politician inflation rate.

However, the situation is markedly worse when one looks at the timing of this ever-upward trend, with all of it coming in the last third of the century.

WA retained its 50-30/MLA-MLC split from 1901 to 1968, meaning a zero MP inflation rate for nearly seven decades.

But numbers rose markedly thereafter.

In 1968 MLA numbers were lifted to 51, while MLCs remained unchanged.

That extra MLA, added by the David Brand-led conservatives, came so there would be an uneven number of MLAs, not, it seems, for blatant party political gain.

But this rise was to be the thin edge of the wedge.

Just nine years later, in 1977, a further six came into being, with MLA numbers boosted to 55 from 51, and MLCs up two to 32.

At the time this was dubbed the Charliemander, because Liberal Premier Sir Charles Court pushed it through so as to avoid a redistribution move favouring urban electorates.

The term “mander” comes from that long-used word, Gerrymander, one that politicians and psephologists bandy about when discussing electoral manipulation.

Sir Charles boosted MP numbers in Perth, where the population had risen markedly, rather than taking seats from rural areas where conservatives had a solid parliamentary hold and where the population was declining relative to Perth.

It was only a further six years (1983) before numbers were further boosted in both chambers – MLAs rising from 55 to 57, while the MLC contingent jumped another two, to the current 34.

The 1983 rise of four MPs was dubbed the Hassellmander, after former Liberal frontbencher Bill Hassell, who engineered it.

For years Labor MPs were outraged by both Liberal-inspired MP increases but remain strangely silent over a coming repeat.

Nineteen years on, in 2002, MLC numbers are set to rise by two more, to 36.

This time, however, the Liberals, are innocent.

So who is to blame?

Under the terms of a deal between Attorney General Jim McGinty and WA’s Greens, the Legislative Council will be boosted because the Greens want two more.

Mr McGinty has quietly buckled to this Greens push because if he doesn’t they won’t back his one-vote-one-value blueprint for the Legislative Assembly.

They, and especially Green MLC, Dee Margetts, feel that having extra MLCs will markedly boost their re-election chances at the 2004 poll.

Without Greens backing Mr McGinty’s long-time dream of electoral changes are in danger of coming to nought.

The irony is that this McGinty-Greenmander requires him not only to boost MLC numbers by two but to move further away from his one-vote-one-value formula in the Legislative Council’s case.

The effect of the McGinty-Greenmander Legislative Council deal is to make the value of a rural voter about three times that of a city voter – exactly the opposite of what Mr McGinty’s reformist sermons have contended as being desirable, indeed essential, for democracy.

Moreover, one vote one value was Greens policy until Mr McGinty’s legislation surfaced, meaning they have now backflipped on a commitment to their supporters.

Apart from this contradiction of platforms, WA is now on track to having 93 State MPs, up 13 in 104 years, or an average of an extra one every eight years.

True, MPs can argue the rise is justified because WA’s population has risen markedly since 1901.

Superficially this may seem to cut some ice.

But it should be realised that, when the original 80-strong MLA-MLC number was adopted, automobile and air travel were in their infancy.

Telephones were a rarity, with just one handset in Parliament House and a handful in government departments. Even telephone exchanges were rare.

Radio communication was on the brink of being proven a possibility by Guglielmo Marconi.

WA in 1901 was without its present bitumen roads network, railways (something MPs rarely now use), and airports. Mobile phones and the Internet were nearly a century off.

The often-talked about tyranny of distance was real, but that’s no longer so.

Yet, as better transport and communications, expand the same happens with State MP numbers.

Why?

The Charliemander, Hassell-mander, and the coming McGinty-Greenmander, show that whichever party you vote for you’re likely to get more politicians when they see political gain for their party.

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