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Wednesday, 16 October 2002
Page: 5260

Senator EGGLESTON (12:45 PM) —The recent Western Australian Supreme Court decision that the Gallop government's one vote, one value legislation was unconstitutional because it required an absolute majority in both houses of parliament is a great victory for rural Western Australians. The one vote, one value legislation was almost universally opposed in regional Western Australia. If the legislation had been allowed to stand, eight lower house seats would have been appropriated from the country and given to the city of Perth.

Western Australia is a vast state with one large city, four or five country cities whose population of 20,000 to 30,000 is considered small by eastern states standards, and a myriad of small country towns scattered across the vastness of Western Australia. The state has varied regions, all with different economies and potential and all of which need to have their own representatives in the state parliament. The state ALP government proposed altering the electoral system to enhance their own electoral chances and subsequently reduce the level of representation of regional Western Australia. The state ALP government claimed that the proposed electoral changes were in the best interests of Western Australia. In truth, they were simplistic proposals that would not have provided the best formula for the good governance of a state with the demographics of Western Australia. Had they been adopted, these changes would have reduced the representation of the regions in the state parliament. From the time of self-government in Western Australia, regional representation has been provided for in the composition of the state parliament, with seats like the former seat of De Grey offering representation for the people of the Pilbara in the century before the last century, when in fact there must have been very few people living in the Pilbara. The seat of Sussex for the people on the Vasse on the south-west similarly must have had a small population. Nevertheless, they had a seat in the state parliament.

Most of Western Australia's wealth emanates from the regions and those areas deserve their own representatives in the parliament. The ALP proposed creating more metropolitan seats, yet metropolitan residents' political needs are already well catered for in the areas of police and law and order, education and health services by the existing level of parliamentary representation. Additional issues which concern metropolitan people are local and are best dealt with by local governments. They do not need more members of the state parliament to handle very local issues.

The ALP proposal for electoral reform was opportunistic and ignored the geographic, demographic and economic realities unique to WA. A country alliance of political parties and rural organisations was formed to challenge the validity of the Gallop government's proposed electoral changes on behalf of the people of Western Australia. It is a great victory for common sense that the outcome has been the rejection of the Gallop government's legislation.

The Hon. George Cash MLC, in referring to the committee inquiry that was held into the one vote, one value legislation, said:

A number of submissions were made by members of the public ... They made the point that country people certainly should not be treated as second-class citizens. However, the big point that was made continually was that there was no call across the State for more members in the metropolitan area. Those people could not understand why there was a determined effort by the Government to transfer members from the country to the metropolitan area. From my experience, people in the metropolitan area have said to me that they think they have too many members of Parliament in the metropolitan area. In fact, I recall that one witness talked about the opportunity in the metropolitan area to go to one of a number of MPs who have offices near where he lives. The point that person was making was that he could choose the MP with whom he wanted to deal, whereas, in the country, people were obviously required to attend the local country member, irrespective of his party allegiance.

That quote was from the WA Legislative Council Hansard of 4 December 2001.

Mr Barry Court, the President of the Pastoralists and Graziers Association in Western Australia, referred to the unique demographics of Western Australia when he said:

Western Australia is completely different from any other State in Australia; in particular, the distances are much greater. To say that Victoria and Western Australia have similar voting areas is just not on. Some of the biggest electorates in the world are in Western Australia. It is hard to service them now—to reduce country representation by eight seats will make it impossible to service them.

That is a quote from the committee Hansard of 7 November 2001.

Apart from the economic rationale, country vote weighting is an equitable response to the tyranny of distance in rural Western Australia. Regional representation is required in order to ensure that people in country areas can be adequately and effectively represented. Mr Dan Barron-Sullivan MLA said to the committee inquiring into the legislation:

I would argue that the key tenet of our system of representative parliamentary democracy is that a member is elected to Parliament ... to represent ... voters, their families and the broader constituencies of the electorate ... That principle should stand higher than any other, even if one is a firm believer in one vote, one value. It is the principle of representative democracy.

Large electorates are almost impossible to service—it is difficult and costly for members to get around the electorate and hard for constituents to bring their concerns and problems to their local member on a face-to-face basis, particularly where in some cases they have to travel hundreds of kilometres to see their local member. For example, in the electorate of Ningaloo in the Gascoyne region of WA, if a constituent in Meekatharra wants to see their local member in his office in Carnarvon they have to travel 600 kilometres. If country seats were amalgamated, members of parliament would have to be extraordinarily well resourced to have any hope of being able to move effectively around their electorates, assuming that there were even enough hours in the day for them to do so. It would be almost impossible for the average constituent to expect to be able to visit the office of his local state MP.

The Hon. Bruce Donaldson MLC stated in the Western Australian parliament:

All members of this House would be aware that it is very difficult to get around a region, especially in the country. People want to see their members and not necessarily be talking to them at the end of a telephone line. Each and every one of us would have to knock back five or six invitations—

a day—

because there are only 24 hours in a day and seven days in a week. As country members must travel vast distances to get from A to B, it makes it even more difficult for them—

were electorates increased in size—

Access to members of Parliament on a face-to-face basis will disappear under this legislation.

The Pilbara Regional Council has said:

Increasing the size of the regional electorates in the State will only make state politicians even more remote from their constituent communities and will inevitably increase speculation about the relevance of state governments in general.

The Gallop government legislation would have resulted in a situation where the Labor Party could, in future, have won sufficient seats to be elected to government without winning a single country seat. That, of course, was what the legislation which was recently disallowed was really about. This would have made rural voters essentially irrelevant, and one shudders to think about what would have happened to services in rural areas had the legislation been passed. The Labor Party would have become even more citycentric and there would have been no incentive to ensure that country people received adequate services, let alone improved services. Policies would have been dominated by city interests, with scant or no regard for the interests of country people or regional development.

It is easy to envisage a situation where rural voters would become a forgotten class of people, with not only second rate representation in the parliament but also inadequate infrastructure and services, such as roads, hospitals, schools and police. The Pastoralists and Graziers Association stated:

In our view, One Vote One Value is not the fair and equitable system its promoters claim, and represents the most serious challenge yet to the rights of country West Australians. To us it is a proposal that will not only make rural people irrelevant, it will destroy forever their right to have their concerns and issues addressed in the Parliament.

In conclusion, this decision by the Western Australian Supreme Court was a great victory for regional WA and confirms the wisdom of the founding fathers of WA, who understood that, in a state as vast and diverse as Western Australia, provision for regional representation was the best formula for the good government of the state.