Voting in the desert

There’s an election in Australia tomorrow. It’s only a by-election with about 11,000 voters, but it’s worth having a look at, both for its intrinsic interest and because it relates to one of last year’s most interesting Covid-influenced elections.

Readers will remember the Western Australian state election of March 2021. The Labor government of premier Mark McGowan, already enjoying a comfortable majority, got a big swing in its favor, almost annihilating its opponents. The Liberal Party was reduced to 21.3% of the vote and just two seats; its usual coalition partner, the Nationals, became the official opposition after winning four seats, albeit with only 4.0% of the vote.

One of those four Nationals seats, and by far the closest, was North West Central. It held out against the tide partly because its sitting member, Vince Catania, enjoyed a strong personal vote: he had held the seat (previously called North West) since 2008, and had started out in the Labor Party before switching to the Nationals in 2009. He won big majorities in 2013 and 2018, and just made it back last year with 51.7% (two-party-preferred).

Now Catania has retired, causing a by-election. You might think Labor would be well placed to take back the seat, but it has chosen not to stand – leaving tomorrow’s contest to be fought out between Liberals and Nationals, plus ten independent or minor party candidates. (Antony Green has a complete preview.)

Since Labor already holds 53 seats in the 59-seat Legislative Assembly, it probably feels that an extra one would be hardly worth the trouble. But it would also enjoy having the opportunity to present competition between Liberals and Nationals as the main game, particularly in view of their anomalous tail-wagging-dog status in opposition.

And North West Central would present some difficulties in campaigning. It is a remarkable seat, consisting of basically the middle third of Western Australia: at some 820,000 square kilometres it is bigger than New South Wales and more than twice the size of Germany. Most of it is desert, but even the habitable part is incredibly sparsely populated. Almost all of its population is concentrated in about half a dozen small towns, the largest of them, Carnarvon, with about four thousand people.

Assembly seats are supposed to have about 30,000 voters each, but a special provision gives a weighting to very large seats – effectively, allowing area to count as if it were people. (I think this is outrageous, but it is at least an improvement on the gross malapportionment of the state prior to 2005.) That’s why for this by-election there are just 11,189 people on the roll, of whom at best about two-thirds will turn out to vote.

If Nationals candidate Merome Beard is victorious, her party will retain its ascendancy over the Liberals and its leader, Mia Davies, will remain leader of the opposition, presumably taking that status into the next state election. But if the Liberals win the seat, the two will have three seats each: logically, the Liberals should then be recognised as the senior party, since they have five times as many votes as well as more seats in the Legislative Council.

Knowing the history of the National Party, however, it is unlikely to give in without a fight. And as we discovered a couple of years ago in the Northern Territory, it’s very hard to resolve such a dispute without effectively giving the government a say in who its opposition should be. And there can be little doubt that, given the choice, McGowan would like to see a party with 4% support trying to market itself as the alternative government.

One thought on “Voting in the desert

  1. For me, the important realisation of the last WA election is that no matter how many state WA seats are renamed or redistributed in future, there will now be almost no WA seat – either under an old or new name – which was *not* held by the ALP in its history. That is pretty rare for a genuine Westminster-style democracy.

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