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State Scene - Joe Poprzeczny: Paying for bad politics

THE Australian High Court’s decision not to overturn vote weighting arrangements across WA’s farmland and outback regions is the second time it has rejected Attorney-General Jim McGinty’s approaches on this issue.

The only thing Mr McGinty can be cheerful about this time is that he and Labor MPs won’t be footing the bill for his costly second failed attempt.

Mr McGinty says his latest challenge cost about $200,000, excluding time worked by his departmental officers.

That not-inconsiderable sum will be met by WA taxpayers, with much of it going to a Sydney lawyer.

The first time Mr McGinty trekked to the High Court over WA’s electoral arrangements was in 1995 after he, as Opposition leader, convinced Labor’s caucus to embark on that legalistic path.

And when that bid failed he sought to have Labor’s legal costs paid by WA taxpayers, something then Attorney-General Peter Foss promptly rejected.

That forced him to pass the hat around caucus members, with each Labor MP having to find $5,000.

Understandably that costly miscalculation led to considerable grumbling and it’s perhaps not surprising that Geoff Gallop replaced him as leader shortly after.

Although Mr McGinty and Dr Gallop made much of the inequity of vote weighting, their case fizzed when it was disclosed they intended retaining such weighting for the sparsely populated outback seats across the Kimberley, Pilbara and Central Desert.

So, after years of bickering, the difference between Labor and the conservatives wasn’t over having fewer voters in non-metropolitan than urban seats, but rather, over precisely where that prevailed; across WA’s farmland, mining and pastoral regions, or just the latter two, only the outback.

Liberals and Nationals contend seats across all non-metropolitan regions should have fewer voters than urban ones, while the McGinty-Gallop formula proposes that only seats beyond WA’s farmlands, that is, in the mining and pastoral regions, should be accorded that status.

In light of this is it a coincidence that Labor holds the mining and pastoral seats of Kimberley, Burrup and Eyre, while all farmland seats are either in Liberal or National hands?

But back to Mr McGinty’s latest unsuccessful High Court challenge, which hinged on whether his electoral bill abolishing weighting across WA’s farmlands had passed the upper house constitutionally.

He argued it had, the conservatives said otherwise, with the High Court disagreeing with Mr McGinty five-to-one.

His bill passed that chamber one vote short of what’s called an absolute majority. In other words with 17 votes.

And those 17 were Labor and Greens MLCs whose combined voting strength, excluding the Labor president, was a single tantalizing vote short of the magical 18.

Now that Mr McGinty has conceded his plan to scrap vote weighting across Liberal and National-held farmland seats, but not Labor-held outback mining and pastoral ones is lost, it’s worth highlighting his two other blunders.

The first was that he sought to transfer no fewer than eight farmland seats into metropolitan Perth, so a further difference of 16 seats between metropolitan and non-metropolitan WA.

This huge turnaround meant Liberals prepared to countenance a more moderate adjustment, say four seats or a difference of eight all up, simply refused to consider compromise.

State Scene has been assured that if the McGinty farmland seat switch hadn’t been as large several Liberal MPs would have pressed for a compromise.

But once a huge eight farmland seats were seen to be at stake they dug in their toes to stand alongside the Nationals, who remained uncompromising since their power base is WA’s farmlands.

Mr McGinty’s next blunder was failure to have meaningful talks with the three upper house members – John Fischer, Frank Hough and Paddy Embry – who entered parliament under the One Nation banner.

Labor is as dogmatically opposed to them as Federal Health Minister Tony Abbott, who successfully helped bankroll the legal action against Pauline Hanson and David Ettridge.

Mr McGinty would have been wise to have sought an understanding with all three or perhaps one of two of them. He was, after all, within one vote of constitutionally amending WA’s electoral laws.

Although they back vote weighting there’s much more to their thinking on how WA should be governed than many members – especially Labor and Green ones – realize.

For instance, all look favourably upon legislation enshrining citizen initiated referendums (CIR) introduced to WA, as exists in Switzerland, a platform that was once Labor policy.

If Mr McGinty had given this some thought he may have been able to do a deal – Labor introduces CIR on condition Messrs Fischer, Hough and Embry, or one of them, backed a modified version of his electoral legislation.

Instead Mr McGinty laid out his plan, which he refined and moulded during negotiations with just the Greens and relentlessly pursued it legalistically.

But, no matter what, he was still short that crucial 18th vote.

A more compromising man would have lowered his sights and, in all likelihood, would now have something to show for his past three years of work.

An all-or-nothing approach has left him with nothing.

Mr McGinty, in 2003, is therefore exactly where he was when he went to the High Court in 1995, though fortunately for him this time round, WA taxpayers footed the bill.

That’s bad politics, even if his wallet was safe.

 

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