To outsiders, Western Australia’s system of rural vote weighting for the lower house seems an absurd and slightly offensive anachronism. Some argue that the very concept is an affront to democracy, enshrining the principle that politicians represent land rather than people; others (the Poll Bludger among them) accept the defence that large electorates place onerous demands on regional members, but can’t understand why such a system needs to prevail in both houses. In fairness, it is not hard to see why Western Australia has been the slowest of any state in letting go of this relic of the the pre-democratic era. There are few subnational governments anywhere in the world covering so vast an area, and the population is far more centralised than that of its closest Australian rival, Queensland. But a relic of the pre-democratic era it remains, locked firmly into place by the power it confers upon its beneficiaries.
Arguments to the contrary might not cut much ice in the eastern states but they find a very receptive audience in regional Western Australia, which views Perth with the same hostility that Perth views Canberra. Labor might have spent more political capital than was available to it trying to get one-vote one-value legislation enacted through parliamentary subterfuges and legal challenges, which partly explains why regional Labor marginals like Bunbury and Albany are reckoned to be gone for all money. So it is hard to know what to conclude from Geoff Gallop’s announcement yesterday that Labor was abandoning the cause, except that it is likely to underscore his image of indecisiveness. Specifically, Labor is now offering a self-serving compromise in which weighting will be maintained only in the vast Mining and Pastoral region, where all five seats have traditionally been held by Labor. Only the conservative Agricultural and South West regions will have their representation cut.
If Gallop is cutting his losses on the basis that the election is likely to leave Labor in a weaker position in the upper house, he would have been better off going the whole hog and endorsing the status quo. The Agricultural and South West regions include a slew of Labor marginals including Bunbury (0.2 per cent), Murray (0.7 per cent), Collie-Wellington (2.6 per cent), Geraldton (2.7 per cent) and Albany (3.7 per cent), whereas most seats in Mining and Pastoral are ones they are going to win anyway (Kimberley, Central Kimberley-Pilbara and Murchison-Eyre, perhaps also North West Coastal). The exception is Kalgoorlie, which has been surprisingly little discussed given that Labor held it from 1923 until 2001, when One Nation preferences sent it the other way by a margin of just 1.0 per cent. It could be that everyone is blinded by the rising star of Matt Birney, who has ascended swiftly to the important shadow portfolio of police and is widely spoken of as a successor to Colin Barnett. But voters are not always so sentimental and Kalgoorlie is the one seat where Labor will benefit if One Nation voters revert to old habits, as is expected elsewhere. Meanwhile, the Coalition’s has promised to constitutionally entrench the existing system so that any one-vote one-value proposal will first have to be passed at a referendum.