Colin Barnett

If anyone thought last year’s Senate electoral reforms had put Glenn Druery out of business, the latest developments in the Western Australian election have firmly disabused them of the notion.

Thanks largely to a virtuoso performance by the nationally renowned preference manipulator, the party that wins the March 11 WA election could face as many as five micro-parties in the state’s 36-member Legislative Council, alongside three One Nation members and about as many again from the Greens.

Druery’s skills at micro-party cat-herding and exploitation of electoral rules brought him to fame after the Senate result in 2013, but he has been equally at home at state elections over the years in New South Wales, Victoria, Western Australia and South Australia.

Each of these states followed the federal example by introducing upper house voting options in which voters could number a single box above the line, and in doing so accept that party’s favoured order for all other parties and candidates.

With a certain amount of help from Druery-inspired preference harvesting, this led to a proliferation of minor-party chancers, voter bafflement as ballot papers grew to the size of tablecloths, and mounting electoral successes for obscure candidates with tiny shares of the vote.

Federally and in New South Wales, this inspired the introduction of alternative systems that maintained ease of voting while eliminating the parties’ near-total control over preferences — and a similarly minded reform bill is now before Parliament in South Australia.

Only Victoria and Western Australia are still wedded to the old system, and Druery is not of a mind to let the opportunities they offer go to waste.

Following the deadline for lodgement of group voting tickets on Monday, it has emerged that five particular parties are privy to an arrangement in which each gets the second preference of the others in one of the state’s six six-member regions.

Furthermore, the election has attracted a record number of upper house independents – a great many of whom just happen to be directing their preferences the same way as the parties who are in on the deal.

The yield of votes from these most obscure of candidates will not be great, but they will have the very important effect of bloating the ballot papers, which has been shown to encourage capricious behaviour by weakly committed voters.

The beneficiaries include self-explanatory concerns called Fluoride Free WA and the Daylight Savings Party, who could respectively harvest the votes of all five parties in the East Metropolitan and South Metropolitan regions — together with those of Julie Matheson for Western Australia, whose well-funded campaign has run to full-page ads in The West Australian.

If that’s enough to push them ahead of One Nation or the Greens, they will then receive those parties’ preferences as well — in which case they could hardly fail to get elected.

Also in on the deal is Flux the System, whose call for a new age of direct democracy made little impression when they ran in every state for the Senate last year.

If preference flows can do the trick for the party this time, voters in the Mining and Pastoral region will be able to determine their representative’s votes in parliament using a phone app — either directly, by swiping for the ayes or the noes on individual pieces of legislation, or by delegating to another voter whose judgement they particularly trust.

The other two names involved are more familiar — Family First and the Liberal Democrats, which respectively have the inside running in the North Metropolitan and Agricultural regions.

Strange as it may seem, the prospect of an upper house configuration as confoundingly complex as that of the Senate is actually quite good news for the party that’s overwhelmingly considered the favourite to win the election.

This is because Western Australia’s Legislative Council is the country’s last relic of the old world of rural vote weighting, with the seats being evenly divided between metropolitan and non-metropolitan regions, despite the former accounting for nearly three-quarters of the state’s population.

The resulting bias towards conservative regional areas means a good old-fashioned Greens balance of power is almost too much for Labor to hope for, and they will have been bracing themselves for the prospect of having to butt heads with One Nation.

Glenn Druery’s machinations could give an incoming Labor government alternative means for negotiating contested legislation through Parliament — even if they do come at the cost of an epidemic of tooth decay, or yet another effort to impose daylight saving on a mostly unwilling electorate.

Peter Fray

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