03/11/2017 - 14:53

Upper house dilemma is Labor’s to solve

03/11/2017 - 14:53


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OPINION: Skewed voter representation and the often-obstructionist outcome that follows has some eyeing changes to the WA Legislative Council.

Upper house dilemma is Labor’s to solve
Labor’s sweeping electoral win has not enabled Mark McGowan to swiftly enact his agenda, due to the composition of the Legislative Council. Photo: Attila Csaszar

The Legislative Council’s decision to side with the gold miners and punch a gaping hole in the state government’s budget repair strategy should have sent a clear warning to Premier Mark McGowan.

Once again the upper house is shaping as a major problem for a Labor government. The challenge for the premier is what to do about it.

To do nothing is not an option. That would reduce the government to a play-safe administration, which would simply squander the big Legislative Assembly majority the electorate delivered. But it doesn’t want a repetition of the gold defeat.

Labor’s key challenge, in the interests of all Western Australians, is to get the finances under control. What is undeniable is that Mr McGowan and his treasurer, Ben Wyatt, inherited a mess. The record budget deficit and spiralling state debt, which will take years to rein in, is testament to that.

The proposed gold royalty increase was designed to raise almost $400 million over the next four years. Mr Wyatt claimed that, with the current high gold price, the industry could well afford it. The industry cried poor and mounted an effective scare campaign. Non-Labor MLCs from regional WA quickly fell into line.

The Liberals had little choice but to do likewise, strongly influenced by the fact that its rookie MP, Kyran O’Donnell, won the gold mining seat of Kalgoorlie from the Nationals WA last March.

One reason for knocking back the extra hit on gold miners – apart from the industry’s sob story – was that Labor hadn’t flagged it during the election campaign, which is true.

All the parties knew the finances were in poor shape. The Liberals’ solution was to sell Western Power, a plan for which it paid dearly thanks to a strong campaign against the sale from a self-interested union movement.

So is Labor’s upper house impasse a reason for the government to throw its hands in the air and say it is all too hard? Hardly; such a reaction would be a cop out.

Mr McGowan and his team have no alternative but to take a close look at the Legislative Council’s composition and ask whether its make-up reflects the wishes of the majority of voters.

The council has 36 members. Eighteen are elected from three regions in the metropolitan area (with a total of 1,103,174 voters) and 18 from three country regions (403,393 voters). Its current structure is a compromise forced on Labor by the Greens in 2005, in return for supporting the introduction of one vote, one value, in the Legislative Assembly. It is still clearly weighted in favour of country voters.

This structure has produced a lopsided party representation in the council. Labor was the biggest vote winner in the upper house in March. Its 544,938 voters returned 14 members, which equates to one MLC for every 38,923 voters. Next best were the Liberals. They polled 360,235 votes to elect nine members (40,026 voters per member, which is more than for Labor).

Then comes Pauline Hanson’s One Nation. Its three members represent 36,826 voters each.

After that, the number of voters for each upper house member falls away sharply. The Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party has one member (Rick Mazza) for its 31,924 voters, followed by The Greens (29,010 per member), the Liberal Democrats (28,848) and the National Party (14,994), whose support is clearly concentrated in the agricultural region.

Labor’s policy at one stage was to seek to emulate its Queensland branch, which abolished that state’s upper house in the 1920s.

And while that won’t happen in WA, various reform options are being tossed around. What they have in common is agreement that having 36 MLCs is too many for a ‘house of review’; 30 would be plenty.

One suggestion is to abolish the six regions and have a state-wide electorate instead. Each party would present voters with a list of candidates, presumably with representation from across the state.

An alternative would be to have three regions – two metropolitan and one country – with 10 members each. There would still be a weighting in favour of country voters, but nowhere near as one-sided as currently applies.

One thing is for sure – continued upper house obstructionism will invite a response.


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