After winning an almighty landslide in the state election last March, the re-elected Labor government lost no time in setting up an inquiry into reform of Western Australia’s upper house, the Legislative Council. The Committee’s final report was released yesterday, and the government has announced that it will legislate promptly to implement its recommendations.
There were two big problems with the upper house, and the Committee has adopted the right solution to both of them. One was the bizarre system of automatic preferencing via group voting tickets (GVTs), which delivered seats to parties with negligible public support via backroom preference deals. GVTs will be abolished, and voters permitted to allocate their own preferences either above or below the line – that is, either for party tickets or for individual candidates.
This isn’t rocket science; New South Wales led the way with this reform more than twenty years ago, later followed federally and in South Australia. But Labor opposed the change at federal level in 2016 and has refused to make it in Victoria (where the GVTs produce equally weird results), so it is good to see the Western Australian comrades showing more enlightenment.
The second and more serious problem was the gross malapportionment. The Council was elected on the basis of six geographical regions, which each returned six members even though they had wildly different numbers of voters: South Metropolitan had about 450,000 while Mining & Pastoral had less than 70,000.
There were a number of proposals for how the regions could be reorganised to provide for approximate equality, but the Committee decided that it was easier and fairer to scrap them altogether and have the whole of the state vote as a single electorate. This too, in my view, is clearly the right decision. In Victoria, which votes by region, there is a serious failure of proportionality even without any malapportionment.
Western Australia already has a lower house elected from geographical districts; there seems no reason why local representation should [require] a geographical-based upper house as well. Rather than suggest that some people’s votes should be worth more than others’, the Committee has a useful set of recommendations for encouraging MPs to locate their offices in rural or remote areas.
The big advantage of a single electorate model is the much lower quota for election. An upper house of 37 (an increase of one, to avoid the problem of deadlock with an even number, although this was not mentioned in the actual report) will have a quota of one-thirty-eighth, or 2.63% of the vote; due to exhaustion of preferences, candidates in practice will probably be elected with about 1.5%, providing for real diversity of representation without the lottery of GVTs.
In New South Wales and South Australia, which also vote as a single electorate, Legislative Council terms are staggered so that only half are elected every four years. I think this is a good system, since it prevents governments winning an upper house majority on the basis of a single landslide result. But since Western Australia already has four-year terms, the Committee, perhaps wisely, declined to recommend it. As Ben Raue comments, “I don’t see how it could be politically feasible to introduce eight-year terms in a chamber currently elected for four-year terms.”
So within its terms of reference, I think the Committee has done the right thing. The big outstanding problem is one that it was not given power to consider, since it was told to recommend reforms to the preferential system. But the changes to be made raise the question of whether preferences for the upper house are necessary at all.
To understand why, it’s best to read Antony Green’s explanation. As he puts it, “In every other country, electing 36 [or 37] members by proportional representation would be done by a form of List PR without preferences.” The more members you elect at once, the less likely the preferences are to make a difference to the outcome, but the more work is involved both for the voters and for those who have to count them.
At some point – and I suggest that point is well short of the 21 at a time that New South Wales elects – the gain in voter control by allowing preferences is more than outweighed by the cost, inconvenience and delay that it causes. It would be enormously simpler to give voters a list of parties and ask them to tick one, then use a Sainte-Laguë calculation to allocate seats to the parties’ lists of candidates.
The Western Australian government decided not to venture in this direction, possibly due to fears about its constitutionality (the constitution requires that “members [be] chosen directly by the people”) and possibly in the belief that, in Green’s words, “Australian voters distrust an electoral system that does not allow choice of candidate and preferences.” I confess that I am sceptical of the latter assertion, since I think public engagement with electoral systems is too low to inspire either trust or distrust, but for now at least it will not be tested.
Despite that reservation, Labor in Western Australia should be congratulated for moving quickly and decisively on reform. The pressure must now be on its Victorian counterpart to follow suit.