Good things come to those who weight

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.

What "what it all means" means

Crikey psephologist Charles Richardson has written in to say he essentially agrees with my assessment of the Legislative Council; his own in-depth reading of the tea leaves will be featured in Crikey tomorrow. Once again, that assessment is that the Coalition will win 17 seats, as will Labor and the Greens combined. This differs from the current state of affairs in that the Coalition will recover all three states currently held by ex-One Nation independents as well as one from the Greens. In terms of electoral reform that will put Labor and the Greens two rather than one short of the floor majority required to pass one-vote one-value legislation, assuming the Greens keep refusing to back an amendment to allow the President a deliberative rather than casting vote.

The big question for election night is whether Labor or the Greens can defy the odds to win two extra seats, but the only alternative likely scenario in their favour is a 3-2 rather than 4-1 split in Agricultural. Reader Graham Allen has kindly set to work amending the Java applet Senate election calculators he developed during the federal campaign to accommodate the WA upper house, which will shortly be available through this site. One of the three he has so far sent through is for Agricultural, and it is not hard to plug in plausible scenarios where the fifth seat falls to either Labor or the Greens, providing the Labor vote can improve to at least 25.0 per cent from 20.2 per cent in 2001. It also appears that Family First might win a seat here at the Coalition’s expense if everything lands in the right place. The calculator for South West is even more intriguing – apparently Liberals for Forests or the Public Hospital Support Group stand a chance of getting elected ahead of a fourth Coalition candidate from as little as 1.5 per cent of the vote, providing the non-major party vote holds up quite a lot better than it did at the federal election. If this happens, it is at least possible that a re-elected Labor government might be able to cut a deal with the newcomer to get electoral reform through.

UPDATE: Thanks to reader Martin Gordon for pointing out a miscalculation in the original version of this post, which had Labor and the Greens likely to fall one rather than two seats short of the numbers required to pass one-vote one-value legislation.

Canal knowledge

From Kununurra in the Kimberley to Eucla on the Great Australian Bight, an iron curtain has descended across the Australian information superhighway. Perth’s monopoly daily newspaper, The West Australian, provides non-subscribers with a pitiful three general news articles a day, few of which are election-related. Though largely unseen outside the state of publication, the paper’s contents set the daily agenda for Perth’s electronic media, which is also hugely important but largely inaccessible to outsiders. That leaves the ABC and the national newspapers, who have been painting the election in general, and Colin Barnett’s canal show-stopper in particular, in a rather different light. Comment in The Australian, the Financial Review and the Sydney Morning Herald has been largely or entirely negative and the reporting has focused on concerns raised by the project’s many doubters. The West has given some airing to criticisms, including sceptical comment pieces from state political editor Steve Pennells, a front page headline two days after the announcement reading "Why canal plan may sink Barnett" and a negative editorial on Thursday tying in with ambiguous Westpoll results. But such coverage has been "balanced" with reassuring headlines like "We can build it for $2b: Tenix" and what Labor partisan Robert Corr describes as "a full page of unchallenged assertions" favouring the project, a courtesy The West rarely offers the government when it gets a smell of blood in the water.

The Saturday after the debate, as doubts about the project reached a crescendo, The West flicked the switch back to an acknowledged Labor negative with the front page headline, "One in 10 has power cut within past week". An article that day by Monica Videnieks summarised reaction to the canal by saying the proposal had been "regarded as visionary in some quarters and lampooned as reckless and irresponsible by the government"; a similar report in The Australian would no doubt have added environmental groups, Treasury, the Institute of Public Affairs and the Chamber of Commerce and Industry to that short list of critics. On Tuesday, the paper ran illustrated soundbites with a diverse range of notables offering their views. Four were positive, three were non-committal, and only one was clearly negative. The paper under-reported Peter Costello’s concerns about the project, which made the front page of The Australian but got one sentence on page eight of The West, and has not had much to say on Nationals leader Max Trenorden’s insistence that the project will not go ahead if it cannot provide water to Perth at $1.20 per kilolitre, 80 cents less than the estimate of leftish economist John Quiggin. Interestingly, Perth’s only other major newspaper, The Sunday Times, reacted in step with its News Limited stablemates last week by headlining its editorial, "Barnett’s water gamble backfires". Normally the paper is no more sympathetic to the government than The West.

The West Australian’s biases, actual and perceived, became a live issue earlier in the campaign when Geoff Gallop and Bob Hawke accused the paper of collusion with the Coalition. Its front page article that day was a report on Australian Medical Association criticisms of the government’s drug law reforms, which appeared the very day the Coalition announced its get-tough-on-drugs policy. Of course, media-bashing is an unduly tempting option for politicians confronted with their own political failings, and Labor must wear much of the blame for its apparent failure to neutralise the canal issue with all the ammunition available to it. Many who did not watch the televised debate would nevertheless have heard the clear consensus view that Barnett emerged the winner, and contemplated why Gallop could not have blown the issue out of the water in the hour available to him if it was really such a bad idea.

Published opinion polling and leaked internal figures have been disappointingly thin on the ground in the current campaign, which is why the Poll Bludger is taking his time adding seat-by-seat predictions to his election guide. The canal project suggests that projections should be adjusted in Labor’s favour outside Perth, and in the Liberals’ favour in the suburbs. Albany, Bunbury and Geraldton, which Labor were considered unlikely to hold, have all come back into contention. The Coalition is now very unlikely to be a show in Kimberley. But in the parched suburbs of Wanneroo, Joondalup and Riverton – each with a two-party margin of 3.1 per cent from similar primary vote figures – the Liberals might just pick up a big enough flow in the other direction, which would also deliver them the still more marginal Swan Hills and Mindarie. That alone would put the Coalition into power, assuming they hold on to their own marginals of Darling Range and Kalgoorlie.

The canal is still a high-risk venture for the Coalition, who are currently exposing themselves to ridicule by commissioning accounting firm BDO to analyse their costings without taking the project into account. But it at least appears possible that observers who are certain the announcement was an act of politicial suicide do not have a handle on the public mood on the other side of the country, and that Centrebet’s 2-1 odds for a Coalition victory might be worth a flutter.

Take two

The Poll Bludger’s post from Thursday on preference tickets for the Western Australian upper house election was inadequately proof-read and has now been thoroughly cleaned up. Readers may still find themselves scratching their heads, but garbled syntax will not be to blame. Since then the Poll Bludger has had two changes of heart, with the Greens now rated a chance in East Metropolitan but Family First written off in South West. The Greens were robbed of Liberal preferences in 2001 because the second candidate on the Liberal ticket only managed to win the fifth and final position. Normally they would come fourth and pass a surplus on to the Greens, needing only 33.3 per cent of the vote to do so, but in 2001 they collapsed to an unprecedented 30.3 per cent. In South West, it had escaped the Poll Bludger’s notice that the Christian Democratic Party will give its preferences to Paddy Embry ahead of Family First. This means that Family First are likely to be eliminated ahead of Embry, who will in turn have no chance of overcoming a fourth Coalition candidate due to various preference arrangements. In overall terms, the official Poll Bludger prediction is now 17 for the Coalition, between 13 and 16 for Labor, and between one and four for the Greens.

Where’s Werriwa

As readers are no doubt aware, an intriguing federal by-election looms for Mark Latham’s seat of Werriwa on March 19. Since Bryan Palmer at Oz Politics has been kind enough to declare that he has been keeping Western Australian coverage to a minimum on the grounds that Antony Green and myself are doing “a great job covering this one”, I am more than happy to return the favour. Palmer is indeed doing an outstanding work tracking the by-election campaign and there is little further of value that the Poll Bludger would be able to add, at least until the state election blows over.

What it all means

The intention had been to cap off yesterday’s posting on the upper house by adding together the various likely outcomes and estimating the final party make-up, but time did not permit. So here goes now. Ignoring outcomes that are listed as possible but unlikely, we can expect a return to traditional results in Agricultural (four Coalition and two Labor), East Metropolitan and Mining and Pastoral (three Labor and two Liberal) and North Metropolitan (three each and one for the Greens). The Poll Bludger might have been hasty in ruling out a result of three Coalition and two Labor in Agricultural, but it’s never happened before. The tough calls are South Metropolitan, which will either go two each and one Greens or three Labor and two Coalition, and South West, where there will be three Coalition and two Labor plus either a third seat for Labor or one for the Greens, and either a fourth seat for the Coalition or one for Family First. That puts the best case scenario for the Coalition at 17 seats, one seat short of the majority that they enjoyed prior to 1997. The worst case for them is a mere one seat fewer, with that seat going to Family First. Labor will win between 14 and 16 seats, and the Greens will be down from five to between one and three. The current numbers are 13 each for Labor and the Coalition, five Greens and three independents who were elected as One Nation members.

Just the ticket

In the wake of last year’s Senate election result, you might have thought that Monday’s deadline for the lodgement of Legislative Council preference tickets would have generated more excitement, at least in psephological pcircles (psorry, I must pstop doing that). The Legislative Council election psystem is very much the psame as that for the Psenate (okay, I really will stop now), right down to the various parties deciding the exact order in which preferences will be allocated for the overwhelming majority of voters who prefer the above-the-line voting option to laboriously numbering as many as 50 separate boxes. The picture is doubly fascinating on this occasion owing to the remarkable quirkiness of the 2001 result, when the Coalition dropped from its customary 17 or 18 seats to an unheard-of 13. Both One Nation and the Greens won seats in each of the three non-metropolitan regions; anyone who is expecting a similar result this time needs to be careful that they don’t wind up in Baxter detention centre. The tickets are now available for all to behold courtesy of the Western Australian Electoral Commission, and if the Poll Bludger is reading them properly, the situation in the six regions is as follows.

Agricultural: The most likely outcome is one seat for Labor and three assured seats for the Coalition with a lottery for fifth place in which either a third Liberal or second Nationals candidate will compete with various minor parties. Interestingly, the Nationals have put the Greens ahead of all the main players except for the Liberals. If the Nationals fall short of a second seat their surplus will be a handy dividend for the Greens, as they will also get the preferences of Liberals for Forests and any surplus left over after Labor wins its usual one seat. Family First will get preferences from One Nation and New Country, the party that Frank Hough (as well as colleague Paddy Embry in South West) joined after leaving One Nation, unless the Christian Democrats do particularly well in which case they are an outside chance of snowballing into contention. Hough?s hopes of re-election have been destroyed by One Nation’s decision to put New Country last, while One Nation themselves would have needed major party preferences to be a chance and they are predictably not getting them. Given the high quota required in five-seat regions, the smart money is on a Coalition candidate winning the final seat.

East Metropolitan: This region emerges as a straightforward contest between Labor member Louise Pratt and Greens ticket leader Lee Bell (also their candidate in 2001) for the final place. The Greens will get preferences over Labor from the Democrats, Liberals for Forests, the Public Hospital Support Group and independents John Tucak and Annolies Truman; Labor will get them from One Nation, Family First, the Christian Democrats, the Citizens Electoral Council and the New Country Party, perhaps ironically given Pratt?s leftist proclivities and gay rights advocacy. Last time around, Bell very nearly closed a substantial deficit against Pratt with help from preferences from the Democrats who scored a relatively strong 4.1 per cent (One Nation preferences were not decisive since their candidate made it through to the final round). Recent evidence suggests that we can expect a further decline in the Democrats? vote that will not directly benefit the Greens, and that Bell accordingly has his work cut out for him. He will be depending on a strong improvement in the Liberals’ performance, so that their candidate wins fourth rather than fifth place with a reasonable surplus to spare which will then flow to the Greens as preferences.

Mining & Pastoral: One Nation and the Greens both won seats here in 2001 but stand little or no chance of doing so again this time. One Nation’s John Fischer, now running as an independent, was elected with preferences from popular ex-Labor independent Mark Nevill, who polled 9.3 per cent. The Greens’ Robin Chapple first overtook Labor’s third candidate with preferences from the Democrats (1.6 per cent) and another ex-Labor independent, Tom Helm (1.3 per cent), and then the Liberal candidate after receiving the One Nation and Labor surpluses. This time there is no Tom Helm equivalent giving them preferences and they have not been put ahead of the major parties by One Nation, so Robin Chapple will have a hard time holding off Labor’s Vince Catania. The Liberals? hopes of recovering a second seat have been boosted by One Nation’s decision to put them near the top of the pile, while the slow-learning Democrats have again chosen to alienate their leftist support base by putting the Liberals ahead of Labor. A potential wild card is John Fischer, the One Nation victor from 2001, who is running as an independent and could potentially deprive the Liberals of a second seat with help from Labor’s surplus. Former federal member for Kalgoorlie Graeme Campbell – yet another ex-Labor independent – has given him a publicity boost by agreeing to be listed second on his ticket. However, a punitive decision by One Nation to put all three of their former members last has most likely sealed his fate. While the most likely outcome is a return to a traditional result of three Labor and two Liberal, there is a long-shot possibility that either might drop a seat to the Greens or Fischer.

North Metropolitan: One of two regions that have seven rather than five members, and thus a quota for election of 12.5 per cent rather than 16.7 per cent. Greens member Giz Watson should be able to manage this, as she polled 9.7 per cent in 2001 and will get preferences from the Democrats, Liberals for Forests and the Public Hospital Support Group, plus any Labor surplus. Beyond that it seems very likely that Labor and the Liberals will share the remaining six seats equally, unless Labor performs exceptionally badly in this Liberal-leaning region in which case the Liberals might emerge with four seats to Labor’s two.

South Metropolitan: This region has returned two Labor, two Liberal and one Greens member at the last three elections. The alternative scenario is for Labor to win a third seat at the expense of the Greens, which last happened in 1989. Labor will get preferences ahead of the Greens from Family First, the Christian Democrats and One Nation; the Greens will get them from the Democrats, Liberals for Forests, the Fremantle Hospital Support Group and Public Hospital Support Group (whose preference tickets are as similar as their names) and all four grouped independent candidates, as well as what is likely to be a considerable surplus over the Liberals? second quota. In 2001 Greens member Jim Scott, who will take his personal vote with him to his tilt for the lower house seat of Fremantle, trailed Labor’s third candidate before the distribution of Democrats and One Nation preferences; this time the former are likely to be fewer, while the latter are going the other way. What might save Greens candidate Lynn MacLaren is an improvement in the Liberal vote, as she will ultimately receive the surplus over their second quota.

South West: History suggests that this seven-member region will deliver three certain seats for the Coalition and two for Labor, with the other two up for grabs. By the Poll Bludger’s reckoning, these seats represent the best chance Family First has to win a third parliamentary seat to add to those it holds in the Senate and the South Australian Legislative Council. The 2001 election was the first under the current system at which the Nationals did not win a seat in addition to the three invariably won by the Liberals, while the Greens first won a seat at Labor’s expense in 1996 and held it in 2001. Most likely the last two seats will go one left (Labor or the Greens) and one right (the Coalition – most likely the Nationals, but possibly the Liberals – or Family First), although the two contests cannot be neatly separated. The Nationals have placed the Greens ahead of Family First, so if Family First edges them out and their preferences are distributed, this will give the Greens a decisive boost in their contest against Labor. Paddy Embry, former One Nation member who is attempting to hold his seat with the New Country party, appears to have been doomed by the preference tickets. The Democrats, Christian Democrats, Liberals for Forests and Public Hospital Support Group all have Family First ahead of him, and One Nation are putting all former party colleagues last. Family First will thus gather the collective vote for all of the aforementioned parties, and will be well in the hunt if this adds up to more than what the Coalition can manage over and above the 35.0 per cent they need to win three seats.

Galloping ahead

Doubts that Labor has returned to a highly competitive position in Western Australia have been further laid to rest by today’s Westpoll in The West Australian, which has Labor on an election-winning 48 per cent against 44 per cent for the Coalition. Hopefully Roy Morgan will join in the fun tomorrow; until then, the following table of recent poll results indicates the reversal in Labor’s long-term slide that appeared to begin when the election was called.

Westpoll Morgan Newspoll
January 48 44 ? 42 44 6
December 40 51 5 39.5 43.5 8 34 49 7
Oct/Nov 41 50 6 42.5 41.5 9
Aug/Sept 46 47 5 47.5 38 7 38 41 9
Election 10/2/01 37.2 34.4 7.3 37.2 34.4 7.3 37.2 34.4 7.3

The West Australian report plays heavily on a supplementary question regarding the canal proposal, which remarkably found that "slightly more than half" were in favour against "a quarter" opposed, despite the finding on voting intention. To the Poll Bludger’s mind the question rather misses the point, namely that the Coalition proposes to dispense with a prudent feasibility study before diving head-long into a massive expenditure of public funds. Voters who are broadly favourable to the concept could still have grave concerns about what such an approach might say about the overall standard of policy under an incoming Coalition government.