The Western Australian government has declared its hand on reform for the state’s Legislative Council, with the release today of the report of the Ministerial Expert Committee on Electoral Reform. It recommends abolishing the state’s system of six six-member regions and having the entire chamber elected at large, similar to the situation that applies in the New South Wales and South Australia, but without their staggered eight-year terms.
Whereas the system currently allocates half the members to the metropolitan area and half to the non-metropolitan area, despite the former claiming roughly three-quarters of the state’s population, the proposed reform offers “one-vote one-value”. It naturally does so at the expense of existing regional representation, and is sure to alienate country voters who were repeatedly told by Mark McGowan before the March election that such reform was “not on our agenda”.
With the government apparently also planning to increase the number of members from 36 to 37 (it doesn’t say this in the report, but Attorney-General John Quigley said this was the plan at his press conference today), this means the quota for election will be a mere 2.63%, compared with the 14.28% quota that applies under the existing system, as well as at half-Senate elections; the 7.69% quota that applies for the Senate at double dissolutions; the 4.54% quota in New South Wales has when electing half its 42 members of the Legislative Council; and the 8.33% quota in South Australia when electing half its chamber of 22.
However, the report also predictably recommends the abolition of group voting tickets, so we may at least be assured that parties elected on small vote shares will be the most popular of their kind and not simply beneficiaries of preference harvesting, as was notoriously the case with Wilson Tucker of the Daylight Saving Party, who won a seat in the Mining and Pastoral region at the March state election from 98 votes.
As was done in the Senate, this will be complemented by optional preferential voting, so that abolishing the group voting ticket option does not oblige voters to number ever box on what threatens to be a very large statewide ballot paper. Whereas the Senate ballot paper advises voters to number a minimum of either six boxes above the line or twelve below it, while actually allowing as few as one or six respectively to constitute a formal vote, the recommendation is to direct voters to number any number of boxes above the line or at least 20 below it.
To mitigate against the dramatic expansion that looms in the size of the ballot paper, there are recommendations that the hurdles should be raised for parties wishing to seek election: a $500 registration fee; a requirement that parties be registered for more than six months before the election; tightening the requirement that parties have at least 500 members by requiring that none of them be members of other registered parties; hiking the nomination fee from $250 per candidate to $1000; requiring 200 electors to nominate independent candidates; and requiring at least three candidates for above-the-line groups.
This must all now go through parliament, and while it is more than possible the details will be refined during the process, Labor’s massive parliamentary majorities ensure that it is unlikely to amount to much.