After two days of surprise, soul-searching and schadenfreude, some good news for One Nation: it does seem more likely than not that the party will secure two seats in Western Australia’s upper house.

Going into the election, the general view was that even a disappointing performance would net the party seats in each of the chamber’s three non-metropolitan six-member regions.

In the event, the result was more than just disappointing — but even so, the party should have a duo of members to show for itself for as long as it takes them to both walk out (which shouldn’t be long at all, if Pauline Hanson’s scapegoating of state party leader Colin Tincknell over the muddle she got into over GST revenue is any guide).

Happily for the right-of-centre cause, there will be a lot more going on in the upper house than just One Nation.

There is, of course, the Liberals and the Nationals, who look likely to retain 14 seats between them in a chamber of 36.

Shooters, Fishers and Farmers will certainly retain the seat they won in 2013, and are a better-than-even chance of adding a second, confirming them as a presence in three of Australia’s six state parliaments.

The Liberal Democrats are well in the hunt for only their second ever parliamentary seat, following that of Senator David Leyonhjelm, and they can once again thank name confusion and fortuitous placement on a confoundingly large ballot paper.

Around about now, readers who have been paying particularly careful attention will be noticing something wrong with this picture.

[Rundle: no matter who wins in WA, the west is lost]

The parties just listed, disparate as they may be, could collectively amount to an ideologically hostile majority confronting a Labor government that has been elected in perhaps the biggest landslide in the state’s history.

Nor is this the work of a Senate-style staggered terms situation causing Labor to be stuck with the detritus of the 2013 election.

Rather, the culprit is an electoral arrangement that evenly divides the chamber between metropolitan and non-metropolitan representatives, despite the fact that Perth is home to three-quarters of the state’s population.

To those wondering how we got here, the answer is that we never really left.

Starting with Edward III’s convening of the House of Lords in the 14th century, the explicit purpose of upper chambers in the British tradition was to act as conservative bulwarks on behalf of landed interests.

The state-based Senate that Australia established at federation was an American idea, but the existing colonial upper houses were of a more familiar type, and saw it as their business to temper the radical experiment of government responsible to a lower house elected on a broad franchise.

For this reason, it was long an article of faith for Labor that the only good upper house was a dead upper house — a mission that was accomplished in Queensland in 1922, when the Labor government stacked the appointive chamber with enough loyalists to vote itself out of existence.

Australia’s other upper houses would eventually acquire legitimacy through democratisation and, following the example of the Senate in 1949, proportional representation.

In Western Australia, however, the conservative impulse died hard.

As late as 1962, only property owners and householders were entitled to vote in Legislative Council elections — which, among other things, had the effect of all but denying the vote to women.

The strength and conservatism of the chamber meant that Western Australia long retained rural vote-weighting in both houses, granting greater influence to rural and regional voters by making their electorates smaller.

After myriad failures to implement “one vote, one value”, opportunity finally knocked for Labor following the defection of a Liberal upper house member in 2005.

[Poll Bludger: making sense of the WA election result]

A more-or-less level electoral playing field was duly introduced in the lower house, but any thought of extending the favour to the upper house encountered a curious obstacle in the form of the Greens.

The Greens at that time were on a career best total of five seats, for which they had One Nation to thank.

One Nation had performed strongly at the 2001 election and directed preferences against both major parties, causing their ample surpluses in the non-metropolitan regions to accrue to the Greens.

As a result, the parliamentary contingent of the normally city-centric Greens had a non-metropolitan majority, and they proved unwilling to cut their constituents’ representation any more than they were already doing in the lower house.

The upshot for the McGowan government is that it must now rely on its negotiation skills and claim to a popular mandate to talk a troublesome assortment of crossbenchers around on contentious issues.

Not the least of these will surely be an attempt to right the wrongs of 2005 with another round of upper house reform.

It may well be thought that the chamber’s composition would make this a lost cause, but the government has an ace in its hand.

One Nation and the Greens aside, the occupants of the crossbenches will owe their seats to a group voting ticket system just like the one that was abolished last year for the Senate.

With help from a few judicious threats from Labor to follow suit, in cahoots with the Liberals or Nationals, it may well be that micro-party members can be persuaded to see upper house reform the government’s way.

Peter Fray

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