Upstairs, downstairs

The re-elected Gallop government yesterday secured passage of its latest one-vote one-value legislation through the Western Australian Legislative Assembly, in readiness for the return of the Legislative Council in two weeks. Labor will then have until May 21 to convince dumped ex-Liberal independent Alan Cadby, at which point the newly elected members will take their seats and again put a constitutional majority beyond Labor’s reach. The Greens have always supported one-vote one-value, and earlier this week The West Australian reported that Cadby had indicated his support for the bill. The West also reported that "up to five" Liberal members wanted the party to cut a deal with Labor.

The current bill differs from the one Labor went to so much trouble over between 2001 and 2003 in two important respects: it quarantines the five remote electorates that constitute the Mining and Pastoral upper house region, which delivers on a widely ridiculed election promise, and it increases the size of the upper house from 34 to 36. The former measure is the source of objections from the Greens and at least one of the lower house independents, who favour a Queensland-style method of regional vote weighting over Labor’s on-the-run election promise to protect mostly Labor-held seats. New Liberal leader Matt Birney said there was "nothing more certain that the Greens are going to reject the quarantining of the Mining and Pastoral (region) and therefore the government will come to Kalgoorlie and the Goldfields and say, ‘I’m terribly sorry about that promise we made during the election campaign, but unfortunately we are not able to keep it’." But Labor’s manoeuvre presents Birney with a tactical difficulty of his own because it protects his seat of Kalgoorlie, which would probably become notionally Labor under the method favoured by the Greens. Since the Liberals appear resigned to the likelihood that Cadby will support the legislation in one form or another, there is a growing view that the party should accept the inevitable and negotiate with Labor over the head of the Greens to achieve the best possible outcome.

The other change in the new-look legislation, which alters the size and composition of the Legislative Council, is quite startling and has been surprisingly little discussed. The legislation that came before the last parliament maintained equal numbers for the metropolitan and non-metropolitan zones despite the disparity in population, thereby accepting the principle of rural vote weighting in the upper house while rejecting it for the lower. Now Labor proposes to give with one hand, by protecting the five Mining and Pastoral seats in the lower house, while taking with the other, by adding four metropolitan and removing two non-metropolitan seats in the upper house. The Council will remain divided into three metropolitan and three non-metropolitan regions, but the former will have seven members (and will include north, south and central metropolitan regions as opposed to the existing north, south and east) and the latter only five. This is surely a tactical gambit on Labor’s part; perhaps they are providing room for Cadby to extract a face-saving concession for the country, or preparing the way for Coalition acceptance of two extra members, a desirable but unpopular outcome.

While the Greens have been critical of the Mining and Pastoral innovation, anything they have had to say about increased metropolitan representation in the upper house has escaped the Poll Bludger’s notice. It is a highly significant point because it introduces a dimension of self-interest which is missing while the debate remains confined to the lower house, where they will find it nearly impossible to win seats in any circumstance. The new measure is certainly at odds with the model the Greens forced upon Labor as the 2001 legislation went through parliament, which put an enlarged Council on the table for the first time by providing for each region to have six members. If Jack Lang spoke truly when he told a young Paul Keating "always put your money on self-interest, son, it’s the only horse that always tries", Labor’s new proposal would seem likely to win their support because it will produce low quotas in the metropolitan area where their vote is highest. Comparisons with Tasmania seem instructive, given that Labor and the Liberals joined forces in 1997 to thwart the Greens by reducing the number of members for the five lower house electorates from seven to five. Where previously the most common outcome had been 3-3-1, the Greens were now now lucky to get a look-in. That said, the situation in the Western Australian upper house is more complicated because the Senate-like combination of full preferential and above-the-line voting makes outcomes so unpredictable that anyone hoping to twist the existing system in their favour will eventually be left looking foolish, as various preference negotiators have recently discovered.

The Poll Bludger has gone to an absurd amount of trouble to construct the results that the various systems would have produced given the voting figures from the last two state elections, assuming all votes had been ticket votes (which is true of all but about 5 per cent of votes cast).

26 February 2005 10 February 2001
Current system (34) 16 15 1 2 13 12 1 3 5
Agricultural (5) 1 3 1 1 1 1 1 1
Mining and Pastoral (5) 3 2 2 1 1 1
South West (7) 3 3 1 2 3 1 1
East Metropolitan (5) 3 2 3 2
South Metropolitan (5) 3 2 2 2 1
North Metropolitan (7) 3 3 1 3 3 1
Old legislation (36) 17 16 1 1 1 14 14 1 3 3 1
Agricultural (6) 2 3 1 1 2 1 1 1
Mining and Pastoral (6) 3 3 3 2 1
South West (6) 3 3 2 3 1
East Metropolitan (6) 3 2 1 3 2 1
South Metropolitan (6) 3 2 1 3 2 1
North Metropolitan (6) 3 3 2 3 1
New legislation (36) 16 16 1 1 2 12 13 1 4 5 1
Agricultural (5) 1 3 1 1 1 1 1 1
Mining and Pastoral (5) 3 2 2 1 1 1
South West (5) 2 3 1 2 1 1
East Metropolitan (7) 4 2 1 2 3 1 1
South Metropolitan (7) 3 3 1 3 3 1
North Metropolitan (7) 3 3 1 3 3 1

Above all, these results show up the vagaries of the Legislative Council electoral system, and by extension that for the Senate. The Greens won a seat in the five-member Mining and Pastoral region in 2001, but they would not have done so if there had been six members. The lower quota would have resulted in a greater surplus carrying through to Labor’s third candidate, preventing him from being eliminated before the Greens and thereby delivering them his preferences. They would have been similarly deprived if there were six rather than seven seats in South West, but not if there were five. The 2001 election was in all respects an unusual result, but the equally grim assessment for the Greens under a six-seat model at the recent election seems less haphazard. Unless the Greens either break through their existing 8 per cent primary vote ceiling or find new sources of preferences to replace the Democrats, they will struggle to win outside of seven-member metropolitan regions. Their narrow win in the seven-member non-metropolitan region of South West in February was an exception to prove the rule, as it was achieved through a preference arrangement with the Nationals; the seat would otherwise have gone to Family First.

As for the major parties, none of the three models seems to offer either side particular advantages relative to the other. In fact, Labor’s current proposal to boost metropolitan representation would have strengthened the Coalition’s position at each of the last two elections. The only exception is that the six-by-six model seems more attractive to the Coalition than to Labor, despite Labor’s acceptance of it during the last parliament. With six members in each region the Coalition would stand a good chance of winning fourth seats in Agricultural and South West, which Labor might very occasionally manage in Mining and Pastoral or the new Central Metropolitan region. The Coalition would thus stand a reasonable chance of winning an overall majority whereas Labor would have little or none. In terms of their collective interest in freezing out the minor parties, it appears that a seven-seat region can be relied upon to return at least one non-major party candidate, so however many such regions exist is a minimum figure for the numbers on the cross-benches. Six-seat regions are a 50/50 proposition, while five-seat regions will return all major party members more often than not (the 2001 election being an exceptional case, as in so many other respects).

Another point worth noting is that more seats means an increased likelihood of micro-party candidates being elected from a very small percentage of the primary vote. At the recent election the Christian Democratic Party would have won a hypothetical seventh seat in East Metropolitan, and the Fremantle Hospital Support Group would have achieved what it very nearly managed in the five-seat South Metropolitan region if there had been either one or two extra seats. One might also be mischievous enough to cite the South Metropolitan seat that the Democrats would have won in 2001. Of course, there could be other remedies for this, such as those raised in the previous post on Bob Brown’s proposed Senate reforms.

UPDATE: Monica Videnieks reports in today’s West Australian that Alan Cadby gave his "clearest signal yet" that he will support the legislation, while the Greens are insisting on both the six-from-six upper house model and Queensland-style regional vote weighting in place of a quarantined Mining and Pastoral.

Author: William Bowe

William Bowe is a Perth-based election analyst and occasional teacher of political science. His blog, The Poll Bludger, has existed in one form or another since 2004, and is one of the most heavily trafficked websites on Australian politics.