The power of one

These are momentous times in the electoral history of the Poll Bludger’s newly readopted home state of Western Australia, which is about to become the last state to abandon rural vote weighting for the lower house and adopt what is known, more or less accurately, as "one-vote one-value". After numerous amendments made to secure the support of the Greens and ex-Liberal independent Alan Cadby in the upper house, the bill finally completed its passage through parliament on Tuesday, just days before members elected on February 26 were due to take their seats and put the necessary majority beyond the government’s reach. The legislation as passed abandons Labor’s campaign promise that the five remote electorates in the upper house region of Mining and Pastoral would be quarantined from its effects. Instead, concerns about servicing of remote areas have been accommodated through a measure similar to that which operates in Queensland, in which electorates with an area of more than 100,000 square kilometres will be deemed to have a bonus enrolment of "phantom" voters equal to 1.5 per cent of the electorate’s area in square kilometres. Other electorates will have roughly 21,000 voters, compared with the current average of about 26,000 for metropolitan and 14,000 for non-metropolitan seats.

The bill provides for two extra members in each house, with the metropolitan area gaining eight lower house seats and the non-metropolitan area losing six. This is unambiguously bad news for the Coalition in general and the National Party in particular, but few who are not directly affected would argue that it amounted to a violation of natural justice. The existing system has produced all manner of absurdities, like the existence of tiny non-Perth urban electorates such as Mandurah, Albany, Bunbury, Kalgoorlie, Dawesville and Leschenault. Furthermore, the Liberal leadership chose to deal itself out of the game by insisting that there could be no merit in any alternative to the status quo. This troubled some of the wiser heads in the Liberal Party, as Robert Taylor reported in The West Australian on May 7:

(Liberal upper house leader Norman) Moore knew that Independent Alan Cadby, who holds the balance of power on the legislation, might be interested in a Liberal version of electoral reform. Mr Moore confirmed in Parliament yesterday that he met Labor’s Electoral Affairs Minister Jim McGinty to discuss the possibility of another model emerging … Mr Moore’s plan increased the size of the Legislative Assembly by four MLAs, kept the status quo in the Legislative Council and guaranteed five Lower House seats in the remote Mining and Pastoral region but within their existing boundaries. The effect of his model was to save two Lower House country seats and reduce the number of country seats transferred to the city from six to four … Mr Moore took his plan to Tuesday’s Liberal party room meeting and by all accounts then listened in amazement as Mr Birney turned the debate into a test of his own leadership. Mr Birney refused to discuss the plan, arguing that the Liberals would lose all credibility in the bush if they voted for the legislation no matter what eventual form it took in the Parliament. An argument was also put that by voting for a one vote, one value model, the Liberals would merely provide the Nationals with ammunition at the next election.

Birney must take a dim view of his country constituents if he imagines they would prefer the purity of the impotent to a sober display of pragmatism in the face of the inevitable. The result of Birney’s idealism in pursuit of a low principle is that lower house representation in the non-metropolitan south-west, currently home to 14 Coalition and four Labor members, will indeed fall from 18 seats to 12. Moore’s plan promised a better outcome for all concerned. Proposals to increase the number of politicians are always vulnerable to populist rabble-rousing, but adding all four new members to the lower house would have been easier to sell as a necessary boost to country representation (for some historical perspective on this matter, check out the remarkable list of Western Australian electoral facts assembled by shy Perth blogger "Ross of Rockingham" – among other things, it tells us that the original electorate of Murchison had 24 voters when it was created in 1890). As for Birney’s reported concern regarding the threat from the Nationals at the distant 2009 election, this seems an insignificant consideration at the best of times, especially now that the affected area will have fewer seats.

The Western Australian Electoral Commission has prepared an indicative map showing how non-metropolitan electoral boundaries might look under the new system, which projects some rather quirky outcomes. Since the Mining and Pastoral region accounts for roughly three-quarters of the Western Australian land mass, the Queensland-style model largely replicates Labor’s original proposal to maintain the strength of the region’s representation while providing for one-vote one-value elsewhere. However, there will now be very large discrepancies within these five seats, which will have to be dramatically redrawn. The WAEC projects the existence of a vast and sparsely populated new electorate called Eyre, covering desert emptiness from north of Kalgoorlie to the South Australian/Northern Territory border, which will have an estimated 9215 voters – substantially fewer than the smallest electorate under the current system, the absurdly compact south-west seat of Leschenault (12,104 voters). It is almost double the estimated 18,179 voters in the projected new Mining and Pastoral seat of Pilbara, which will take in relatively populous mining areas on the north-west coast.

Much has been made of the fact that Matt Birney’s own electorate of Kalgoorlie, the only one of the five Mining and Pastoral seats not held by Labor, will be abolished under the new model. Where the current electorate of Kalgoorlie is based entirely within the city that bears its name, the projected new electorate of Dundas will absorb the whole city and surrounding areas as far east as the South Australian border. While this might look impressive on the map, Dundas will add a mere 961 new voters to the current enrolment of Kalgoorlie for an increase of about 7 per cent. Birney’s margin at the February election was 2024 votes. The new legislation only slightly aggravates an already existing problem, namely the Liberal leader’s relatively insecure hold on what was traditionally a Labor seat. Other changes projected by the WAEC for the Mining and Pastoral region include the expansion of the state’s northernmost seat of Kimberley, which will boost Labor’s margin through the recovery of remote territory it lost at the previous redistribution, and the creation of Murchison, which is similar to the seat of Ningaloo that existed before the previous redistribution. This area has normally been considered Labor territory, but Ningaloo was won narrowly by the Liberals at both elections of its short life (1996 and 2001). Murchison joins Dundas as the other seat with a conspicuously small enrolment, in this case an estimated 10,019 voters.

As far as the major parties are concerned, these changes are a case of swings and roundabouts. The 12 seats that will replace the existing 18 in the non-metropolitan south-west are quite a different matter. The six seats tipped for abolition include four held by the National Party (Greenough, Merredin, Wagin and Stirling) and two by the Liberals (Leschenault and Dawesville). That leaves the following survivors:

Moore: The WAEC projects that this electorate will include all of the existing electorate of Moore except for the Shire of Toodyay, along with the northern half of the exisiting electorate of Merredin (which does not include Merredin proper) and most of the area of the electorate of Greenough. Moore looms as an interesting contest between the Liberals, who won the seat for the first time in 1986, and the Nationals, who had a morale-boosting win in Greenough at the expense of a sitting Liberal member at the February election and for whom Merredin is a party stronghold. The National Party members for Merredin (Brendon Grylls) and Greenough (Grant Woodhams) could be left contemplating a run against the newly elected Liberal member, Gary Snook.

Geraldton: Labor’s Shane Hill narrowly won the existing seat of Geraldton at the past two elections, but would have to do very well to hold it now that it is set to be augmented by more than 8000 new rural voters from the solid conservative seat of Greenough. The weak performance by the National Party in Geraldton at the recent election suggests that it will fall to the Liberals, but the newly elected Nationals member for Greenough, Grant Woodhams, could prove popular enough to buck the trend if obliged to seek refuge here in 2009.

Avon: The WAEC projects that this electorate will be augmented by one shire from Moore, four from Merredin and two from Wagin. None of this suggests the seat will become any less safe for the National Party, particularly in light of the stature of the sitting member, party leader Max Trenorden.

Murray: Located on Perth’s expanding southern fringe, the WAEC envisions this electorate making up the numbers by absorbing the southern half of the metropolitan electorate of Peel. This would make a fairly safe Labor seat out of one in which Liberal newcomer Murray Cowper prevailed by 198 votes at the recent election.

Mandurah: The WAEC projects the abolition of the existing electorate of Dawesville to boost the numbers in Collie-Wellington and Mandurah, with Mandurah set to take in the populous area north of the Dawesville Channel. Since the Liberals won Dawesville by 4.1 per cent and Labor won Mandurah by 12.3 per cent, this will still be a Labor seat but with a softer margin. Given that Mandurah was held by the Liberals before 2001, it looms as one to watch for the next election.

Collie-Wellington: The existing seat is over quota so this will not need to expand too dramatically to meet the new enrolment requirements. It will absorb the southern part of Dawesville while losing the Shire of Dardanup to Capel. Labor’s Mick Murray did well to blow out his margin from 2.6 per cent to 9.3 per cent at the February election, but the new additions will probably make life harder for him.

Capel: Capel will lose its ungainly appendage south of Busselton along with a small area in the north to accommodate the expansion of Bunbury, while gaining the Shire of Dardanup from Collie-Wellington in the north and most of the Shire of Bridgetown-Greenbushes from Warren-Blackwood in the south-east. This will do nothing to change its status as a safe Liberal seat in which the National Party would need to field an exceptionally strong candidate to be competitive.

Bunbury: Bunbury will expand to incorporate those areas of the City of Bunbury it does not currently include, from Leschenault in the east and Capel in the south, plus a further coastal strip west of Bussell Highway in the south. These changes will strengthen Liberals newcomer John Castrilli’s precarious hold on the seat.

Vasse: Currently hugging the Cape Geographe coast, this electorate will dramatically expand in area to accommodate all of the Shire of Augusta-Margaret River (currently in Warren-Blackwood) and most of the Shire of Busselton (taking in an area currently in Capel). This will strengthen the Liberal hold on a seat that should be a safe seat for them, although they have survived strong challenges from the National Party and an independent at the past two elections.

Warren: This electorate is less closely related to Warren-Blackwood than the name suggests, as it will include most of the abolished seats of Wagin and Stirling. It looms as a tense struggle between the Nationals and the Liberals. Affected members are Liberal veteran Paul Omodei, member for Warren-Blackwood; the newly-elected Nationals member for Stirling, Terry Redman; and Terry Waldron, Nationals member for Wagin since 2001.

Albany: Labor have done well to win Albany at the last two elections, enjoying narrow wins in a seat that was held by the Liberals from 1974 to 2001. Albany will now expand to take in an area from the National Party seat of Stirling, and while many of the new voters will be from outer Albany suburbs where Labor performs well relative to the remainder of Stirling, Labor successes will probably become even rarer here in future.

Roe: Roe will absorb the south-eastern corner of Merredin, including Merredin itself, and the Shire of Dumbleyung from Wagin. This is all National Party territory, which makes the seat doubly interesting in light of Graham Jacobs’ success in winning the seat for the Liberals in February after the retirement of the sitting Nationals member.

If the results from the last election were replicated under these boundaries, the Coalition would have won nine of the 12 seats, of which between one and four would have been won by the Nationals (who won five seats on February 26). The WAEC has not prepared an indicative map for the metropolitan area, but the seats would presumably have been won in proportions similar to the actual result – about 29 from 42, compared with 24 from 34. Throw in a status quo result in Mining and Pastoral and assume that the two independents would have held their seats, and you have Labor on 36 seats and the Coalition on 21, compared with 32 and 23 in the current parliament. Given that the Nationals would have borne the brunt of the cut in Coalition numbers, it is hard to see why Birney was terrified at the thought of losing votes to the Nationals, but relaxed about losing seats to Labor.

The other half of the bargain is that the Legislative Council will gain two extra members. The state will still be divided into three metropolitan and three non-metropolitan regions, but these will have six members each instead of five or seven. The principle of rural vote weighting will thus endure in the upper house, which is the only place where it belongs. This change was insisted upon by the Greens despite the Poll Bludger’s conviction (as argued here) that it was not in the party’s own interest. Labor correctly concluded that they would be little affected and were happy to oblige.

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.