23/06/2011 - 00:00

Porter facing a major challenge

23/06/2011 - 00:00

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It will be a major boost for attorney-general Christian Porter if he can get his draft prostitution Bill across the line.

AFTER delivering last month’s generally well-received state budget, Treasurer Christian Porter is now facing a bigger political test wearing his other ministerial hat.

As attorney-general, Mr Porter has introduced a draft Bill outlining new laws to regulate prostitution. It is a well-worn path, which has never achieved its goal. But if he succeeds it will be a real feather in his cap and mark him as a serious contender for the Liberal leadership to eventually replace the premier, Colin Barnett.

The prostitution issue has always been a political can of worms. And that still applies with the fact that the strongest opposition to Mr Porter’s move to regulate the industry could well come from his own side.

There are two key points under his plan. One is to force the trade out of the suburbs and into specific industrial areas. The other is to ensure that the names of all prostitutes are placed on a register so that their activities can be better monitored.

“It is not the government’s intention to normalise, or in any way promote prostitution as an ordinary, socially acceptable activity,” Mr Porter told parliament. “However, it is a reality that prostitution will always be an activity that carries with it significant risks to the health and safety of participants and the potential for the involvement of organised crime.”

He added: “The Bill aims to provide police, government and the community with the necessary tools to finally crack down on unlawful prostitution.”

After several false starts by both sides of politics, Alan Carpenter’s Labor government actually succeeded in having reform legislation pass through both houses of parliament. But it lapsed when he called the snap 2008 election before the measures became law.

That would have caused dismay among the state’s 95 MPs, especially those now in their first terms who will have to grapple with the issue for the first time, as it is debated again, probably later this year. And that debate will be divisive, reflecting community views on the issue.

One view is the free-market approach, that the sex trade is an entirely private economic transaction with no negative impact on third parties. There should be minimal state involvement.

The opposite view is that the ability to buy and sell sex like any other commodity is morally repugnant. In addition, the effects are likely to be so morally and emotionally detrimental to the participants that the activity should always be unlawful.

The third is the worldly view that sex will always be for sale, so it is better for some prostitution to be considered lawful in specific locations. That means regulation.

A recent report for the state government on the sex industry found there were about 530 prostitutes operating from brothels in Perth. There were also about 50 prostitutes working privately and a further 50 women providing escort services. In addition “a few dozen women and a few male and transgendered workers sporadically worked on the streets ...”

The report also dealt with the fallout from registration, noting licensed brothel owners will have a vested interest in publicly exaggerating the scale of their ‘illegal’ competition, by goading politicians and the police to act.

It also noted the political risk for MPs voting on the registration or licensing issue, warning: “Philosophically, licensing systems are also problematic because they can be described as the government endorsing sex work.”

The attorney-general’s main challenge could well come from his own party room. Several Liberal MPs have already flagged they are opposed to the reforms, taking a stance similar to that adopted with the earlier changes planned under Labor. And there was an influx of Liberal MPs at the last election with strong Christian beliefs who are likely to have difficulty lending their support.

Some others, like Colin Barnett, will be more pragmatic. Four years ago the premier said the legalising of brothels would increase the number of women becoming prostitutes. But last week he appeared to have changed his tune, noting that his government’s draft laws did not mirror those of Labor.

Of course the government could hardly introduce laws without the premier’s support. But Liberal MPs will, unlike Labor’s, be given a conscience vote on the issue. The one risk is that if the proposed laws differ markedly from the original Labor plan, the opposition might find that it can’t support the changes; that would place them in jeopardy.

The challenge for Mr Porter is to work his way through these competing views, first in his own party room and then with the opposition. Success would surely enhance his leadership ambitions.

Libs’ marginal boost

THE recent draft redistribution of Western Australian electoral boundaries passed with a minimum of comment. But privately, the Liberals are very pleased with the results. With one exception the most marginal Liberal seats have been made safer, based on the 2008 election results.

The exception is the previously solid Labor seat of Morley; it fell to the Liberals due to an ALP feud in which the previous Labor MP, the late John D’Orazio, stood as an independent and directed his preferences to the Liberal, Ian Britza, who fell over the line by 0.9 per cent.

But based on the new boundaries, Labor will start the next election campaign with a narrow edge of 0.8 per cent. That means Mr Britza will have to come from behind in his attempt to retain his seat. Not impossible, but still a tough job.

The good news for the Liberals includes in Wanneroo, where first term MP Paul Miles has seen his margin stretch from 0.7 per cent to 1 per cent. Mike Nahan in Riverton is also smiling, with his margin extended from 0.2 per cent to 2 per cent. Peter Abetz in Southern River is slightly better off as well, with a 1.8 per cent buffer.

Labor has had less luck with its tight seats. Albany and Forrestfield will continue to have wafer-thin margins of just 0.2 per cent. Not much room for error there.

Morley is notionally a plus for Labor, but Tony O’Gorman in Joondalup has seen his buffer almost halved – from a useful 3.5 per cent to just 1.9 per cent.

There is some good news though, with veteran Mick Murray’s edge in Collie-Preston being extended from 1 per cent to 3.8 per cent, and in the Pilbara – a seat from which veteran Tom Stephens is retiring – where the safety net doubles to 7.2 per cent.

Vince Catania, who jumped ship from Labor to the National Party, also looks more secure in the renamed North West Central seat, with 3.3 per cent up his sleeve.

The Electoral Commissioners will confirm the boundaries on which the 2013 election will be fought in October.

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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