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Reformist rhetoric now just a memory

NEVER underestimate the impact on body, mind and soul of chauffeur-driven cars, huge jarrah-topped desks, big soft leather swivel chairs, and exquisite views of the Swan River from CBD high-rises.

They’re some of the highly prized perks of being a WA cabinet member.

So accustomed are they to such agreeable taxpayer-funded amenities that the attachment probably ex-plains a great deal of their political behaviour, whichever party reigns.

This point was brought home last month when Premier Geoff Gallop admitted he was dishonoring his April 2000 promise to democratise the post of governor by refusing to call a referendum on its fate.

Dr Gallop began shying clear of idealistic democratic reforms well before revealing he wouldn’t honor his clearly enunciated governor’s promise.

During his time as Opposition leader Dr Gallop used white-hot language to assert his belief in constitutional and democratic reform, and his plans to take Labor away from elitist governance if elected.

But since the election of February 2001 he’s gone stone cold on this, as with his April 2000 promise for a referendum on electing WA’s governors.

There are several ways of showing this Gallop backflipping.

One is to consider the famous, but now carefully forgotten, Recommendation 263 (R263) of the costly 1995-96 Commission on Government (COG) Report, which stemmed from the billion dollar WA Inc losses of the Burke-Dowding years.

COG concluded that WA Inc was partly caused by WA’s archaic and elitist constitutional arrangements.

It consequently recommended convening a People’s Convention “to review the constitutional laws of the State and formulate a new Constitution for WA”.

Serious stuff – it’s not often government-commissioned reports call for an overhauling of a State constitution.

But that’s precisely what happened in this case, and COG’s chairman, Jack Gregor, never received the deserved praise for his courage and far-sighted, democratically oriented recommendations.

Soon after the COG Report was released a 10-member Parliamentary Joint Standing Committee assessed it and, on reaching R263, agreed a convention be convened.

So far so good.

The next step was for the (then) Court-Cowan Government to reveal its position on convening that Convention, which it unveiled in an October 1996 document that shows it agreed to convene it.

But the first signs of politicians – Liberal-National ones in this case – going into hedging mode surfaced right then.

“The difficulties in the establishment of a PC should not be underestimated and the Government believes that no particular form of PC should be endorsed without further community discussion,” the conservatives’ document said.

It went on to say that the convention must come after the Federal Government’s February 1998 Constitutional Convention, thereby delaying matters by 16 months.

“The Government will be addressing these matters in its next term,” the document concluded.

Since the Court-Cowan Government was returned in December 1996 and held power until February 2001, you’d think the much-talked-about and unanimously backed convention would have been held sometime during those 50 or so months.

But nothing happened.

That’s not entirely surprising. Conservatives never want to change anything, and they certainly have no inclination towards further democratising WA.

But how did Gallop-led Opposition Labor react?

The first thing that must be said is Dr Gallop was a member of the Joint Standing Committee reviewing the COG or Gregor Report, and backed its decision to convene a convention.

But Gallop-led Labor initially went markedly further.

It released an excellent 32-page document assessing the COG Report, which showed it held strong views on the crucial R263.

Dr Gallop’s statement of 18 November 1996 said: “Labor will make government truly answerable to the people with the most radical reforms in memory”.

That may sound like exaggerating.

It wasn’t, for if one reads on that’s exactly what he envisaged then.

He said Gallop-led Labor would “empower people by holding a People’s Convention to consider fundamental changes to the State constitution, such as citizens initiated referenda, a Bill of Rights . . .”

He also promised to “appoint the Deputy Premier as Minister responsible for Constitutional Reform”. True, these were promises for a 1996-2001 Labor Government, which never eventuated since Mr Court won.

But why weren’t these under-takings resurrected after last year’s unexpected Labor election win?

It’s like his promise to have a referendum on possibly electing governors. Now that he’s in power he’s broken that promise.

Not surprising Dr Gallop’s white-hot 1996-reformist rhetoric has also been jettisoned.

One of the first acts of Gallop Labor in power was removal of the COG Report from the Government web site.

By 2001 a Convention was right off his agenda.

As far as constitutional reform is concerned, forget it. The constitutional arrangements that propped-up WA Inc have been re-embraced.

Clearly, chauffeur-driven cars, Swan River views, jarrah-topped desks, and leather swivel chairs simply don’t encourage instituting things like a minister for constitutional reform, election of governors, and making “government truly answerable to the people with the most radical reforms in memory”.

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