14/01/2009 - 22:00

Time for some order in the house

14/01/2009 - 22:00


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Its time something was done about the staffing situation at Parliament House

AT the start of every new year there should be at least one new idea floated, one that doesn't further burden Western Australia's already overtaxed public.

This year, State Scene offers one suggestion aimed at improving facilities at Parliament House.

There are two reasons for this.

Firstly, governments have been putting this off for years.

Secondly, the plan incorporates savings from another quarter.

So, no extra expenditure when neither major party believes in lowering taxes.

State Scene's plan involves an outlay in the order of $35 million to beef-up facilities for MPs.

This is something they've avoided acting on, so it's best that an outsider promotes it.

I usually visit Parliament House once a week.

And it must be said the grounds, entrance hall, stairway, courtyard, and other public sections are attractive and exceptionally well cared for.

The Parliamentary library, after our cathedrals and the University of WA's Winthrop Hall, is among Perth's most attractive public spaces.

However, parliament lacks something our 95 MPs never highlight - adequate office space for all MPs and staffers who, in some cases, share cramped offices.

Whenever State Scene has raised this, MPs generally agree. Then most say, "But if we did anything like you're suggesting voters would claim we're just looking after ourselves."

So nothing is done to permanently remedy matters.

True, ongoing renovations are being made and these improvements are generally welcomed.

However, what's needed is a major integrated annex near Parliament House, and State Scene suggests that rear vacant lot at the corner of Parliament Place and Harvest Terrace.

The reason is that each MP and staff should be properly housed, along with parliamentary committee rooms and their expert staffers.

State Scene suggests the construction of a single large structure, one that's likely to cost about $35 million.

And it should be visually compatible with Parliament House.

Understandably, because of that price tag this is constantly put aside with incremental minor ad hoc additions instead.

Most voters won't realise that behind parliament presently there are at least four buildings - two on Harvest Terrace and one on Parliament Place - that are either totally or largely occupied by MPs and/or staffers.

The fourth, carrying the quaint name Summer Palace, resembles an outdated beach shack, like you'd have found beyond Dunsborough in the 1960s.

I suspect there are others I've never entered. I once visited an MP's office over near Thomas Street, nearly in Subiaco.

What this means is MPs and their staffers, plus parliamentary committee staffers, are scattered far and wide around West Perth's eastern segment - between Parliament House and Havelock Street - with some well beyond.

True, modern communications means these locations don't need bonfires to send smoke signals, but it's time MPs commissioned an ergonomist to study how much time is wasted daily with so much walking between various locations to and from Parliament House.

And an engineer and architect should be commissioned to assess that large block at Parliament Place and Harvest Terrace to determine what could be built.

And while they're at it they should be asked to consider including a tunnel below Harvest Terrace linking the new all-purpose annex to Parliament House.

State Scene isn't exaggerating when claming that sizeable numbers of MPs endure conditions markedly inferior to what senior and not so senior public servants enjoy across Perth's CBD.

Perhaps this is because ministers have swish offices on St George's Terrace and in Dumas House on Kings Park Road, West Perth.

If that's so, it's time inadequate parliamentary facilities were no longer delayed and major improvements were undertaken.

This again came to mind during mid-2008 when a press report urged construction of what was called a "land bridge" linking Parliament and the CBD.

"Architects, urban designers and the lord mayor have called for the state government to resurrect a 20-year-old plan for a land bridge linking Parliament House to St Georges Terrace near Barracks Arch, saying it would revitalize the city," that report said.

Greg Howlett of Cox Howlett & Bailey Woodland and Interstruct said the proposed bridging structure over the Mitchell Freeway to the foot of Parliament House could incorporate car parking plus offices, presumably for MPs and staffers.

But the question needing serious consideration is whether such a structure should be belatedly perched over the freeway network or located at the rear of Parliament House where access to both chambers would be far easier.

The primary thrust of the bridge link proposal, which, according to the press report, former infrastructure minister Alannah MacTiernan promptly rejected, is that it would enhance Perth CBD, not necessarily Parliament House and committee and other facilities.

What may be appropriate for one may not be so for the other.

The land bridge option is also suspect on security or anti-terrorist grounds, since a truck bomb could easily be placed below it, meaning Guy Fawkes could be easily copied.

It's the lack of adequate, compactly situated facilities that's being highlighted here.

Integral to State Scene's proposal for the land at the rear of parliament rather than a huge concrete edifice over Mitchell Freeway is that significant savings can be made to help finance the former.

Several years ago this column highlighted the fact that presently all lower and upper house MPs have electoral offices.

It was further argued that all upper house MPs' offices should be closed down because what we have is a duplication of MPs' offices since those in both chambers have them.

Upper house MPs should only have offices in or adjacent to Parliament House, that is, near the various parliamentary committees that focus upon assessing legislation.

The reason is that members of the house of review should be focusing solely upon legislation - in committee hearings and through close and ongoing association with expert staffers employed by committees.

Upper house MPs shouldn't be undertaking what are essentially social work-type duties that lower house MPs and their staffers can easily undertake.

Too much of the state's legislative work is being left for the state bureaucracy to initiate when it should be upper house parliamentary committees that interview voters and experts to assess and refine their ideas and proposals.

What's needed is only 59 lower house electorate offices across WA and the shutting down of all 36 upper house ones with a consolidation of the latter members into a special purpose parliamentary annex where detailed legislative and research work is undertaken.

Rental and other savings made by pulling in upper house members from all over the state would mean substantial ongoing budgetary allocations could be re-directed to housing those 36 upper house MPs and their legislative and research staffers near Parliament House.

One former Labor minister assures State Scene that the annual outlay on each electorate office is easily $100,000.

That's around $3.6 million annually for those 36 offices, or $36 million over 10 years, which could easily bankroll a special-purpose annex behind parliament.

Having 95 electorate offices - when 59 are quite adequate - across WA is an issue that, like parliamentary facilities, has been overlooked for too long.

We can be confident a cash-flush bank or superannuation fund would willingly lend $36 million over 10 years for such a gilt-edged deal.


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