The Labor Party has thrown one of its basic principles out the window by now supporting the gerrymander in Western Australia as, Charles Richardson explains.

At least since the time of the Hawke government, debate has raged over the strength of the ALP’s commitment to its “traditional values”, and whether or not they constitute an electoral handicap for it.

What participants in this debate usually mean by “traditional values” is socialism, or at least a belief in a strong economic role for governments. Over the last 20 years or so the Labor Party has abandoned or watered down most of its old socialist policies, to the anger of a dwindling band of traditionalists.

But now there’s a new twist to the story. Take a bow, Geoff Gallop: facing a difficult re-election campaign, the Western Australian ALP has decided to abandon a much older left-wing tradition, namely the commitment to democracy.

On Monday, Gallop announced that his government would modify its support for electoral reform in WA to the extent of retaining the existing five seats in the “Mining and Pastoral” region – seats that, like all non-metropolitan seats, are currently given a weighting of double the value of city seats. Check out the story here.

Ever since the People’s Charter of the 1830s, working class politics has been committed to democratic electoral reform: the secret ballot, universal suffrage (at least for adult males), abolition of property qualifications, and – yes – equal electoral districts.

It is simply basic to democracy that everyone’s vote should count equally. The various systems of malapportionment that Australia has had – of which WA’s is the last real survivor – have never been more than a device to give a built-in advantage to the rural-based conservative parties at the expense of urban and working-class votes.

The best explanation of the history and workings of the current system is by Antony Green on the ABC website. Labor, to its credit, has consistently opposed the inequality, and spent much political capital early in Gallop’s term attempting to overturn it. It was stymied by the opposition in the Legislative Council.

That is an unpleasant sign of what has happened to the Liberal Party in recent times. Back in the 1970s the South Australian Liberal Party tore itself in pieces over electoral reform, when a significant body of opinion stood up for democracy against the party’s rural oligarchs. Not so today; the WA Liberal Party has held solid against reform, and is doing everything it can to demonise the very idea of one-vote-one-value.

Now Gallop has confessed himself beaten, although he denies that he has turned his back on the cause (see also the Poll Bludger’s summary, “Good things come to those who weight”).

He hopes to salvage some electoral advantage by keeping the weighting just for Mining and Pastoral, where Labor does comparatively well, while scrapping it in the stronger Liberal and National Party regions.

But this just helps to show how insane WA’s current arrangements are. A system that gave a consistent extra weighting to sparsely populated electorates would still be an affront to democracy, but at least it would have its own internal logic. But that’s not how WA works.

Many non-metropolitan seats are compact, urban areas in provincial towns – for example, Bunbury with 24 square kilometres, Albany (43 sq km), Geraldton (52 sq km). Others are really just satellite suburbs of Perth, like Mandurah at 25 sq km. Compare this with large outer suburban seats, whose votes are deemed to be worth only half as much: Swan Hills (1,508 sq km), Serpentine-Jarrahdale (1,359 sq km), Wanneroo (637 sq km).

Even in Mining and Pastoral, the seat of Kalgoorlie is only 67 square kilometres, not much more than some suburban backyards. Yet it has, and under Gallop’s plan would retain, twice the weighting of a metropolitan seat! (for all the figures, see the WA Electoral Commission website here).

This is all anachronistic nonsense. Imagine the shock our great-great-grandparents would get if they knew we were still arguing over such basic stuff in the 21st century. Of course big rural electorates are hard to represent – but so are inner-city seats with 20 different languages spoken. If MPs need more help to service their seats, give it to them – buy them all Lear jets if we have to. But don’t compromise on democracy.

Charles Richardson on Libs vs Nats out west

From the February 20 subscriber email

By Crikey psephologist Charles Richardson

The Poll Bludger’s excellent coverage of the Western Australian election now includes, under the heading “Turf Wars”, a complete assessment of the twelve seats in which the Liberal and National parties are standing against each other.

This is an interesting topic. At a federal level, the National Party vote relative to the Liberals’ has been in free fall for some years now.

>From its peak of a quarter of the Coalition total in 1987, the National Party has declined to less than one-seventh (13.4%) at last year’s election. In WA its fall has been especially dramatic, to the point where it now commands less than 1% of the vote – below even the Australian Democrats.

In state elections, however, the National Party is holding its own a little better. It staged a modest recovery at the last Victorian election, and it has reclaimed a sort of relevance in South Australia by going into coalition with the ALP.

In New South Wales and Queensland it has been protected by Coalition agreements that keep the Liberals from contesting its territory. (That does not stop seats falling to Labor, but the National Party has always realised that the Liberals, not the ALP, are its real enemy – a realisation that has unfortunately escaped the Liberal Party.)

At state level in WA, the Nationals are still in the picture. At the 2001 election they managed 3.3% of the lower house vote (slightly below their Victorian counterparts), which, thanks in part to the state’s gross malapportionment, yielded five seats (a loss of one).

They are all safe as against the ALP, but three of them are being challenged by the Liberals. The Nationals in turn are standing in four Liberal-held seats, hoping to benefit both from ALP preferences and from the return to the fold of One Nation voters.

This election, therefore, will be a test of whether WA really is different from the rest of the country. In the eastern states, three-cornered contests have been death for the National Party: they have not won a seat off the Liberals in more than a decade, and they have struggled to hold their own seats whenever the Liberals have seriously challenged.

The most recent signal from WA is that things are not all that different there. In late 2001 there was a by-election in Merredin, National Party heartland territory that had been held by former leader Hendy Cowan, and the Liberal Party contested it for the first time in 15 years. They polled a very respectable 34.8%; the Nationals’ vote fell by 13% and they held the seat on ALP preferences.

If the Nationals are going to have to work to hold such hard-core seats, then their prospects for expansion don’t look too good. But stranger things have happened, so we will watch that aspect of the result with interest.

Also new to the Poll Bludger site is an expanded analysis of the upper house, including a set of java applets provided by Graham Allen that give instant calculations of preference flows in the different regions.

They mostly confirm what I said in my own analysis last week, available on Crikey here. The one change I would make is to emphasise how much of a lottery the last seat in Agricultural region is going to be: I still think four Coalition and one Labor is the most likely result, but quite small shifts in the vote could give the last seat to any of the third Liberal, the second National, second ALP, Greens, Christian Democrats, Family First, or the Public Hospital Support Group. (Exercise for readers: see if you can produce a scenario where Liberals for Forests get up; I couldn’t, but it may well be possible.)

I’ve always found it pretty hard to get interested in state upper houses, but the 2001 Western Australian result was so unusual (five Greens and three One Nation in a house of 34) that it’s well worth a look this time. If nothing else, it’s an interesting preview of the new system that will take effect next year in Victoria, which has similar features – fortunately without the malapportionment.

CRIKEY: Charles will be in Western Australia from Tuesday onwards to cover the election, so for all our readers in the west this is your chance to set him straight about things: email all tips and info to [email protected]