A little-noticed milestone last week in the slow and erratic advance of Australian democracy: the electoral distribution commissioners in Western Australia called for submissions on redrawing the state’s electoral boundaries.

The significance of this is that for the first time, the WA Parliament — or at least the lower house — will be substantially based on equal electoral districts. The rural malapportionment that gave country votes twice the weight of suburban votes has been abolished.

Labor has made many attempts over the years to reform the system, and after the 2005 election a Liberal defector in the upper house finally gave them the numbers they needed to bring the state into the modern era. As I said when discussing the subject two years ago: “Imagine the shock our great-great-grandparents would get if they knew we were still arguing over such basic stuff in the 21st century.”

To get reform through, the Government had to make concessions. As is the case in Queensland, there will be a special weighting for very large electorates: a seat with more than 100,000 square kilometres gets to count area as well as people in calculating its compliance with the average, at the rate of one person per 67 sq km.

This means that a seat of 500,000 sq km and 12,000 voters is treated as if it had 19,500 voters, and therefore would be within the permitted tolerance around the average enrolment of 21,350. This is an affront to democracy, but a limited one: at least the criterion is objective. It will end the practice where even compact urban seats in country areas, such as Kalgoorlie, were over-represented.

Only four seats are currently large enough to get the extra weighting.
Even with it, the non-metropolitan area will lose at least six seats, and the metropolitan area will gain eight (the lower house is being increased from 57 to 59 seats). The Legislative Council will remain hopelessly malapportioned — indeed, it will get worse.

Submissions for the redistribution close on 4 May, and draft boundaries are expected to be published at the end of June. Everything should be in place well in advance of the next election, due in early 2009.  Western Australia is the only state Labor government whose margin is relatively narrow; on the old boundaries, the Opposition only needed a further four seats (about a 3% swing) to win government. The extra suburban seats should give Labor a bit more breathing space.