Since ‘One Vote One Value’ legislation passed shortly after the 2005 election, all lower house electorates have been drawn to have roughly the same number of electors (with the exception of a small number of large seats in the north). Prior to these reforms, electorates outside of Perth had approximately half as many electors as metropolitan electorates.
These reforms, however, did not see the end of similar malapportionment in the Legislative Council – if anything, it was worsened.
These changes have been an embarrassment to the WA Greens, and have created an overwhelming conservative majority in the Legislative Council that may hinder any future left-of-centre government.
(As an aside, when electorates have unequal numbers of voters, they are malapportioned, this is different to gerrymandering, where electoral boundaries are drawn to improve the position of a party or parties. Generally we’ve seen rural malapportionment in Australia, which has a partisan impact, but not actualy gerrymandering.)
The South West region has barely half as many voters as one of the three metropolitan regions, while Agricultural and Mining and Pastoral have even less voters than South West.
Proportional representation was introduced in Western Australia’s upper house in 1989 – with the current six regions. North Metro and South West elected seven members each, and the other four regions each elected five members.
This malapportionment was also reflected in the Legislative Assembly, where Labor was disadvantaged by rules that created more seats in the country than in the city.
After the election of the Gallop government in 2001, they began to make plans to reform the Parliament to end malapportionment. The eventual legislation ensured almost all lower house seats have equal numbers of voters. It doesn’t fix the inherent unfairness and perversity of single-member electorates, but it ensured that the Liberals and Nationals didn’t have a significant advantage over Labor.
Unfortunately, the Greens adopted the position of not supporting an equalisation of numbers for Legislative Council regions, and eventually adopted the policy of creating six regions which all elect six MPs.
This means that the three-quarters of the WA population who live in the Perth area elect 18 MLCs, while the one quarter outside Perth elect the same number of MLCs. This malapportionment means that the Legislative Council is significantly biased towards the ‘right’ (Liberal Party, Nationals and small parties like Family First and the Shooters) and against the ‘left’ (Labor and the Greens).
At the moment, the most likely outcome for the three urban regions is 10 Liberal, 7 Labor and 1 Green. If the three non-metropolitan regions were merged to elect only 6 MLCs (as their population justifies) – the right would win four seats, instead of 13, and the left would win two, instead of five. Overall this would reduce the majority for the right from 23-13 to 14-10.
Last Saturday was a landslide election (if not a result of NSW/Queensland proportions) – but in a more normal election, this malapportionment would likely save a conservative majority.
This is the second election in a row where the right has won 5/6 seats in Agricultural and 4/6 in Mining and Pastoral. If you assume they were to win those again, the Liberals, Nationals and right-wing minor parties could achieve half of the seats in the Council with only two seats in each of the metropolitan regions, and three in the South West. This means that a two-thirds majority of seats in the Perth area wouldn’t be enough to give the centre-left an upper house majority.
Certain parts of the WA Greens opposed any weakening of the disproportionate influence held by regional Western Australia in the Legislative Council, and the party eventually agreed.
It’s unclear where the ALP stood, but figures who were involved in the reforms in the early 2000s agree that it was the Greens who proposed to maintain malapportionment in the Legislative Council. The ALP may have accepted the decision because of traditional Labor strength in the Mining and Pastoral region. The collapse in Labor’s support in the region at the latest election has worsened the bias in the system, and has particularly strengthened the position of the Nationals.
It’s an interesting story about how the mixture of party positioning and demographic change has weakened Labor’s hold in the state’s north, but that’s a story for another day.