THE great dilemma facing the state Labor caucus as they plan for their final full year in office before the election is their survival, and how to buy it.
With the election due next March, the government has to move pretty soon to plot a path of pain and gain.
The decision making is brutally simple. In order to survive an expected electoral drubbing, through no greater reason than for being in power for too long, the current caucus will have to back a Greens push to increase the size of the House of Assembly.
The trouble is, it will hand the Liberals yet another attack weapon to add to their formidable arsenal of reasons for a change of government. Even though the Libs know in their hearts that a big part of the current mediocrity and crisis in state politics stems from the House being too small and the gene pool too narrow, they will campaign against it for the sake of a few cheap votes.
Based on recent polling, which is becoming remarkably consistent in pointing to a Labor wipe out, the Labor caucus would lose about five seats and be reduced to a rump next March. The Greens could even win more seats and become the official opposition.
Short of few political miracles and a Will Hodgman melt down, the Libs will romp it in. They are on track to win a majority, whether in a House of 25 seats or a House restored to 35 seats.
The difference for Labor is, that with a restored 35-seat House the current caucus would all keep their seats. It doesn't auger well for new Labor candidates, but bugger them. Survival is survival. When there's only one life buoy available you get to know who you're friends are.
The dilemma for Premier Lara Giddings is how to get back on the bigger Parliament wagon without costing Labor even more grief. No amount of political science about the constitutional merits of a bigger Parliament will ever win over battlers.
She has got to make the extra $3.1 million price tag cost neutral, and she can.
MP's wages and allowances in the House of Assembly cost $5.3 million a year. Ms Giddings intervened last year to stop a flow-on from a big pay windfall for federal pollies, and she can intervene again to manipulate the salaries of House of Assembly MPs as a contribution towards the costs. It might even reduce their income tax bracket and be cost neutral for individual MPs. You can't rope in the Legislative Council for a pay cut because you need them to approve the change. Never get between an MLC and a pay rise, and never bank on MLCs ever taking a pay cut.
The other alternative is to offset the growth of 10 extra MHAs with a commensurate cut in the political staff and support budget. The Ministerial and Parliamentary Support budget, paid for by the government, is approaching $20 million, with $3.6 million set aside for staff wages. That's another offset. The argument has always been that with fewer MPs from 1998 there's been a corresponding growth in the number of minders. Another savings option.
That's two options, for Labor to get away with a bigger Parliament, by making it as close to cost-neutral as possible. Forget about the political science argument. Political survival means you've got to grab hold of that life buoy and never let go. Forget about the budget improving to make way for a bigger Parliament. Voters will never buy it, even in boom times.
Just legislate for an extra 10 MPs. Liberal governments will never return to the smaller House, no matter how much they rant this year about the extra cost burden.
Some times you've just got to decide - and then tell voters it's in their best interest - and yours.
Barry Prismall is deputy editor of The Examiner.