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State Scene - Numbers still favour Nats

ELECTORAL Affairs Minister Jim McGinty’s decision to embark on a costly High Court challenge to the weighting of WA’s rural electorates provides a suitable opportunity to revisit this issue.

“The application for leave to appeal to the High Court will be heard in April, and if leave is granted, the appeal is then likely to be heard around mid-year,” Mr McGinty said before Christmas.

The conventional view of the more than 30-year old one-vote-one-value (OVOV) imbroglio is that Labor backs it, the Nationals bitterly oppose it, and the Liberals are in between but invariably adopt the Nationals’ stand.

The rise of the Greens and One Nation complicates matters, with the former backing OVOV while One Nation takes the Nationals’ stand.

But there’s another complication.

Although the Greens officially back it, they are deeply split over whether to support the McGinty line because three of their MPs hold rural seats.

And there’s another even more complicating factor that has long been forgotten.

On November 28 1995 a joint Liberal-National Party press release said: “In-principle agreement has been reached on a system, which would divide the State’s electoral enrolment by 57 and allow for a variation of plus or minus 20 per cent”.

True, 20 per cent variability is a wide disparity, but at least the conservatives were prepared to move towards dividing the State’s voters relatively evenly by the number of seats, 57, for the first time.

The McGinty formula is for a 10 per cent variation – half that alluded to by the conservatives.

How did the conservatives come so close to adopting the McGinty formula which they now so doggedly oppose?

Getting to the bottom of that is difficult.

The few current and former MPs who’ll discuss it won’t disclose names of those involved.

Despite that drawback, here’s what appears to have occurred.

Rival conservative leaders Richard Court and Hendy Cowan, before the 1993 election, had a secret written agreement with clauses specifying how many National and Liberal ministers there would be.

When the Lawrence Labor Government fell the Nationals gained four in a cabinet of 17 – 23 per cent of ministries – after having gained just 5.3 per cent of the statewide vote, giving the Nationals a huge nine seats compared with the Liberals’ 42, or 18 per cent

Under the McGinty formula the Nationals are unlikely to win more than two seats in the lower house and two in the upper house, so four.

So 5.3 per cent of votes blew out to 18 per cent of government seats, which became 23 per cent of ministries. Not bad.

This, understandably, upset many Liberals in 1993, particularly urban MPs who felt

they deserved cabinet spots.

But the Nationals, with just a 5.3 per cent voter base, had that balance of power and used it.

Between swallowing that bitter pill and November 1995, a group of disgruntled Liberals studied voting patterns and concluded the malapportionment complained about by the likes of Jim McGinty was also clearly hurting the Liberals.

Just then the Commission on Government, following the WA Inc inquiry, recommended electoral reforms, which the disgruntled Liberals drew to the attention of colleagues.

They then began pushing in the McGinty direction because they had believed they could gain at the overfavoured Nationals’ expense.

All this happened behind closed doors. There were very few leaks.

But this much has emerged: Jim McGinty and new Labor leader Geoff Gallop learned of the conservative camp’s unrest. They even visited one Liberal backbencher’s home to secretly discuss the possibility of several Liberal MPs crossing the floor in support of an Opposition Labor and dissident Liberal OVOV bill that was actually drawn-up.

However, in the end all the conspiring come to naught.

That backbencher discovered he was one vote short of being able to ensure the joint OVOV bill became law.

The parliamentary Liberals have two wings – an urban one and the so-called ‘push from the bush’ which, like the Nationals, doggedly backs rural electoral weighting.

So the matter faded away. But not before a face saving joint party room conference agreed to OVOV, though with 20 per cent margins.

The addition of that proviso meant things were marginally better than the situation as it was stood.

However, Labor would have backed it because it was the thin edge of the wedge and moving their way.

After the 1996 election the increasingly luckless Liberal MLA for Alfred Cove, Doug Shave, oversaw electoral affairs. Rather than instituting the November 1995 coalition’s formula he delayed and stonewalled, so nothing happened, meaning the Nationals again won out.

Gradually the issue was overshadowed by the crucial mortgage brokers’ fiasco in which Mr Shave became ministerially enmeshed.

This means that, in the unlikely event of a Barnett-Trendorden government emerging in February 2005, the Nationals will again be able to bargain hard for more ministries than their voter base warrants.

And Mr Barnett, like Mr Court, will have to grin and bear it.

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