Sure, it’s just one sparsely-populated state on the “wrong” side of the world, but Saturday’s election in Western Australia was still a powerful rebuke to Trumpist politics.
Australia doesn’t have the same entrenched two-party system as the United States, so here the Trump types get their own party – Pauline Hanson’s One Nation. From high expectations, it managed only 4.7% of the vote and never looked like winning a seat in the Legislative Assembly.
Because One Nation didn’t contest every seat, that figure understates its effort a bit. It averaged 8.1% in the seats it contested, but they of course tended to be in more favorable territory for it. Its 7.3% for the Legislative Council may be a better reflection of its support, although counting there is very much incomplete – so far One Nation is winning one upper house seat and is ahead in the race for a second.*
More important was the effect on the Liberal Party, the mainstream centre-right governing party that chose to bargain with One Nation. It suffered a catastrophic defeat, losing probably 19 of its 32 seats with a swing of around 12.5% – about one voter in three deserted it. As clear popular verdicts go, they don’t come much clearer than that.
The National Party, which for once seemed less friendly to the far right, held up better, dropping 0.7% to 5.4% and losing probably two of its seven seats (one of them to the Liberals). It remains in fourth place, behind the Greens but ahead of One Nation.
In other words, pandering to the far-right fringe is not a winning strategy. Voter discontent does not necessarily boost populist extremists; in this election, it gave a landslide victory to the Labor Party, which will govern with a majority of maybe 21 seats.
Nor did Labor win by any obviously unconventional strategy. Premier-elect Mark McGowan is no Bernie Sanders: he’s a very normal social-democratic politician. Labor sounded much the same themes as it has across the country for the last twenty years, with the bonus of being able to present its opponents as in bed with the extremists.
So did the Liberals at least get something in return for their disastrous deal? Did the One Nation preferences that it bargained for at least offset, even slightly, its loss of primary votes?
It would appear not. We’ll have to wait for full distribution of preferences to see how many One Nation voters followed the how-to-vote card. But we can already tell what effect they were having, by comparing seats with a One Nation candidate and seats without.
One Nation contested 35 of the state’s 59 seats. Leaving out the six in which it’s not possible to get a two-party-preferred swing (all of which had One Nation candidates), the remaining 29 recorded a mean swing to Labor of 12.6%, with a median of 13.1%. In the other 24 seats, with no One Nation, the mean swing was 13.2%, median 13.4%.
The seats contested by One Nation, however, were disproportionately in rural and regional areas, where the swing to Labor was noticeably lower. If we look at just the metropolitan area, the swing to Labor in the seats with One Nation candidates was 13.6% (mean) or 13.2% (median). In the seats without, it was 13.5% (mean) or 13.9% (median).
Whichever way you look at it, that’s a negligible return on a deal that damaged the party’s brand so badly.
Nor should this be surprising. We got exactly the same message from the Queensland election of 2001, where One Nation contested about half the seats: the Liberal and National parties did just as badly where there were One Nation candidates as where there weren’t. But historical memory is not the Liberal Party’s strong suit.
And while we wait on further counting and the bizarre lottery of automatic ticket preferencing (abolished last year for the Senate, but still operative in WA) to decide the makeup of the Legislative Council, we can say something about the representativeness of the lower house. Here are the latest totals of votes and expected seats:
- Labor 42.8% 40
- Liberals 31.4% 14
- Greens 8.5% 0
- Nationals 5.4% 5
- One Nation 4.7% 0
- Christians 2.1% 0
- Shooters 1.2% 0
- All others 3.9% 0
The familiarity of tables like this should not blind us to their strangeness. Why exactly should a party with only three-sevenths of the vote win two-thirds of the seats? Granted that you can make a case for giving the winning party a guaranteed majority, to provide stable government, but why should it be so large? What democratic purpose is that serving?
And what about the minor parties? What conceivable justification is there for the National Party to win five seats while the Greens, who outvoted them by more than 30,000 votes, have none – and are not even close to winning one? Nor is it far-fetched to think that One Nation’s lack of representation will just feed its voters’ paranoia.
A proportional system (which, as I’ve observed before, anyone with a spreadsheet can calculate in 30 seconds) would have given Labor 27 seats, the Liberals 19, five Greens, three each to the Nationals and One Nation, and one each to the Christians and Shooters. (That’s Sainte-Laguë; a D’Hondt calculation gives the same except that the Shooters miss out in favor of an extra Liberal.) The state’s voters would actually get what they voted for.
Last time it was in office, WA Labor performed valuable service by finally getting rid of the state’s rural malapportionment. (Although it survived, enhanced, in the upper house.) Unfortunately there is not the slightest sign that it has any appetite for dealing with the distortions produced by single-member districts.
* I have used Antony Green’s calculations of the One Nation vote. The official results are all available here; for most purposes, the ABC’s compilation is more user-friendly. Counting for the lower house is still continuing as well, so some of the numbers I cite will change a little, but not so as to affect the general picture.