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WA 2021 – the not-so-level playing field for the upper house

March 8, 2021 - 14:51 -- Admin

Australia has a long history of electoral systems that slant the playing field in favour of particular ideological positions, favouring certain voters over others. Limiting the vote to people with property was common in the mid-19th century, and survived in some upper houses well into the 20th century.

It was also very common for rural electorates to be drawn with smaller populations than urban electorates, or for boundaries to be left unchanged as urban populations boomed.

Western Australia is the last relic of this “malapportionment”, with power in the upper house favouring rural voters and the parties who do better in those areas.

Malapportionment in the lower house was a common tactic for skewing the popular will in the middle of the 20th century, propping up conservative governments in South Australia, ensuring the Country Party were a viable party of government in Victoria, and inflating parliamentary majorities for Joh Bjelke-Petersen in Queensland.

Western Australia finally abolished its malapportionment for the lower house before the 2008 election, with a redistribution moving a number of electorates from rural areas to urban areas. But that same process was unable to fix the malapportionment in the upper house, with a Greens upper house MP refusing to go along with the reform plans. Instead the malapportionment in the upper house was made even worse.

The Legislative Council is elected from six regions. Three of those regions cover metropolitan Perth, which as of 2021 includes 75.8% of all enrolled voters. The other three regions cover the remainder of the state. Each region elects six members.

This means that less than one quarter of all voters get to choose half the members of the upper house. The malapportionment is even worse, since the South West region covers more electors than the Agricultural and Mining and Pastoral regions combined.

I’m going to run through the voting numbers between these regions, which shows the impact of the malapportionment.

This first table splits the vote between the three metro regions and the three rural regions.

ALP
LIB
NAT
GRN
ON

Rural
32.8
20.6
18.0
6.2
11.4

Metro
42.9
28.6
0.0
9.4
7.2

Statewide
40.4
26.6
4.4
8.6
8.2

There is a big gap in the Labor and Liberal vote between these areas, but the Nationals are the most dramatic, polling 18% in the rural areas, but only 4.4% statewide. The Nationals vote is even more concentrated in the two most malapportioned regions, polling 30% in Agricultural, 19% in Mining and Pastoral and just 12% in the South West.

There are also similar skews for the right-wing minor parties, with One Nation and the Shooters both polling substantially better in the rural regions. The Greens are the reverse, doing much better in the metro regions, and doing much better in the South West than the northern rural regions.

It’s then useful to look at the seats won by each party in these different areas.

ALP
LIB
NAT
GRN
ON
SFF
LDP

Rural
6
3
4
2
2
1
0

Metro
8
6
0
2
1
0
1

Statewide
14
9
4
4
3
1
1

Labor holds two more seats in the metro regions than in rural WA. Overall the “left” holds ten out of eighteen seats in the metro area, while the “right” holds ten out of eighteen in the rural areas, resulting in an even split of eighteen seats each.

The actual result would be quite different if the upper house seats were distributed evenly. The Nationals would struggle, and I’d expect Labor to do better.

The 2021 election may well be decisive enough that Labor and the Greens will have a decisive majority, and that will likely see reforms proposed that will end this last population imbalance in Australia’s voting systems.