18/02/2021 - 14:00

Poll pressure on upper house

18/02/2021 - 14:00


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The strong likelihood of a returned McGowan government isn’t enough to ensure it can gain a majority in the upper house.

Poll pressure on upper house
Collie-Preston could be a contestable seat for the opposition, given Labor’s Mick Murray isn’t contesting next month’s poll. Photo: Gabriel Oliveira

With victory in the March 13 general election virtually in the bag, Mark McGowan is being urged to turn his attention to reform.

In the case, the reform in question is the way the 36 members of that sleepy backwater of Western Australian politics, the Legislative Council, are elected.

The reason behind this push is simple: the strong vote that will return Labor with a handsome majority in the Legislative Assembly is almost certain to leave it short of the 19 members it needs to control the upper house.

That promises to be a repeat of the 2017 result, in which Labor won 41 seats in the 59-seat assembly, but could only manage 14 members in the council; five short of that all-important majority.

Conservatives argue that is a good thing. The council, in its true role as a house of review, can provide a brake on Labor legislation it considers too adventuristic or partisan. The last thing they want is Labor controlling both chambers.

But the boot has been on the other foot when Liberal and National Party governments controlled both chambers, as was the tradition in Western Australian politics.

Labor-initiated reforms under the Burke and Gallop governments in the 1980s and 2005 changed the structure of the upper house at the same time as the party ditched the long-term policy for its abolition (as occurred in Queensland in the 1920s).

And while Labor effectively achieved one vote, one value in the assembly with the 2005 changes, the council emerged with six districts – three metropolitan, three regional – each electing six members, in the last blatant gerrymander in Australian politics.

It must be noted, Labor supported these changes as a trade-off with the Greens to achieve reform in the assembly, where government is won and lost.

Why is it blatant? Consider this. In the 2017 poll, it took 1,045,415 voters from the three metropolitan divisions to elect 18 MLCs. That’s the same representation as for just 340,700 regional voters. And of the three regional divisions, the Agricultural region recorded 90,637 votes and Mining and Pastoral just 50,564 votes.

The Nationals’ Martin Aldridge led candidates in Agricultural, and his party polled 27,060 votes to win two of the six seats. Labor’s Stephen Dawson – now the minister for electoral affairs – topped the poll in Mining and Pastoral, and Labor also won two seats with just 16,846 votes.

But this compares with North Metropolitan, where Agriculture Minister Alananah MacTiernan led the poll and Labor recorded 124,809 votes for its two seats, and South Metropolitan where Education Minister Sue Ellery was first elected and Labor gained 155,678 votes to win three seats.

The malapportionment between city and country is obvious, but will anything be done about it? Mr Dawson has already knocked that on the head. And why would Labor stir it up in a climate where it is an odds-on favourite to be returned with another massive majority in the assembly?

Why start a city-country stoush when they have proved so costly to Labor in the past? Remember the 1974 Forrest Place state election rally, at which Labor prime minister Gough Whitlam was pelted with eggs and tomatoes by angry farmers over his government’s plan to remove the superphosphate bounty, which put paid to Labor premier John Tonkin’s re-election chances?

The Liberals would also benefit from electoral reform, but any hint they were moving in that direction would be costly in the regions. The Nationals, for one, would have a field day embarrassing their traditional partners in government.

Which means the main election speculation is about the results in a handful of tight seats. Can the Liberals hold Riverton following former leader Mike Nahan’s retirement? Will Liberal frontbencher Alyssa Hayden repeat her 2018 by-election victory in Darling Range? What about Kalgoorlie being defended by first-term Liberal Kyren O’Donnell? And will former Liberal Ian Blayney hang on in Geraldton, this time for the Nationals?

Of the Labor seats, the most vulnerable include Albany, where long-term MP Peter Watson is retiring, and Collie-Preston could be in the mix with Sports Minister Mick Murray standing down. The Liberals are also optimistic of gaining highly marginal Labor seats such as Murray-Wellington and Kingsley.

But a Labor majority in the council promises to remain as elusive as ever.


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