On Elections

How people elect parliaments

Logic of ‘voter equality’ drives WA electoral reform

An inquiry into defects in the way the Western Australian Legislative Council is elected has produced a most unusual reform report, and could see the state create possibly the world’s most democratic legislative chamber.

WA’s six electoral regions (image: Wikipedia)

The Council – the upper house of the state Parliament – has for a few decades used a system of STV (single transferable vote) voting within six geographic regions – three covering the state capital Perth, and three covering the entire remainder of the vast state, making up the western 33% of the Australian continent.

But the current six electoral regions have very different populations, making the result one of the world’s most striking cases of malapportionment.

Around 90% of the state’s population lives in the south-west corner, with around 80% in the city of Perth. But the six state electoral regions do not map proportionally onto resident population numbers.

As the report states, the vote of a voter resident in the ‘Mining and Pastoral’ region is ‘worth’ over 6 times the vote of a resident of metropolitan Perth.

This bias, known as regional vote weighting, has been a feature of several of the Australian states throughout the nation’s history, but was largely abolished by the 1980s. WA remains the only state to significantly use such weighting in its elections.

Compared to the three Perth regions (vote value scaled at ‘1’ in this graphic), over time the vote value of regional voters has been much higher, and in some cases increasingly so (image: MEC report)

The Ministerial Expert Committee to review the situation was made up of former State Governor Malcolm McCusker AC and three legal and political scholars, and had no politically partisan members.

The Committee was charged with developing recommendations for reform, targeting the issue of voter equality of influence, specifically “how electoral equality might be achieved for all citizens entitled to vote”. Their report released yesterday does precisely that. 

The report opens by facing the question “how to achieve electoral equality for all citizens entitled to vote for the Legislative Council. This requires all electors’ votes to be of equal value.”

The report settles almost immediately on the conclusion that only “a Whole of State electorate would produce complete electoral equality, which the Terms of Reference mandate.” (p.11)

Personally, it’s nice to see the report quote my own submission as the basis for this conclusion:

This is literally the only option to create equality, because any approach which does not declare that it takes the same number of votes to elect a member is, by definition, not conferring equality in terms of vote weight.” 

This state-wide common quota option is essentially what currently happens in each 4-yearly half-Council election for the New South Wales and South Australian Legislative Councils. [A]s such, an established and tested Australian model is available for easy adoption in Western Australia.” (p.12)

The review rejected, however, using the staggered two-term approach as in NSW and SA, advising that 8-year terms of office were too long for political accountability of the MLCs to the electorate.

The ‘whole-of-state’ recommendation has surprised many observers – frankly, including me. Most of us expected a proposal for the retention of some system of regional electoral divisions, but supported by rules for regular reviews of boundaries, or of adjusting allocated seat numbers, so that by keeping seat numbers in rough proportion to population, there would be some rough ‘approximation’ to voter ‘equality’.

The report goes to some length to explain why it rejected regional divisions. After weighing several options, it concluded that while:

“…[they]would all be a significant improvement on the current system, by achieving approximate electoral equality while retaining a form of proportional representation in the Legislative Council, each regions-based option has [a number of] disadvantages [including that it] …delivers, most importantly, a lower standard of electoral equality compared to a Whole of State electorate model.” (p.26)

The Committee dealt rather bluntly with submissions which called for the retention of regional vote weighting:

The Terms of Reference require the Committee to examine how (not whether) to achieve electoral equality, so the Report does not engage with those arguments. … [and later adding] Submissions that supported continuing the current regions-based model that involved regional vote weighting were not considered. … the Committee’s Terms of Reference require it to examine ways to achieve electoral equality. The Committee has therefore only considered regions-based models which are directed towards that objective.” (pp.9, 19)

The report also clearly concluded that the methodological basis for the elections, the current single-transferable vote (STV) system – must be retained. It considered briefly the notion of using ‘party list’ seat allocation alternative systems:

One possible solution would be to introduce a completely different counting method, as is used internationally, such as [the party list systems using] D’Hondt or Sainte-Laguë [allocation formulae]. These methods do not include preferential voting however, so each would remove the right of electors to allocate their own preferences.

There are two reasons why these options are not favoured by the Committee. The first is that the Committee is providing options for increasing voter control over their own preferences, but these options would reduce voter control. The second is that … the Constitution Act 1889 …  entrenches the requirement that ‘members’ be ‘chosen directly by the people’.”  (p.35)

The last point has a long-term and broader importance for Australian electoral law. It has been widely assumed that the phrasing “chosen directly by the people”, used in the Australian federal Constitution and several of our state constitutions, provides a legal barrier to adopting party list electoral systems. The issue has never been directly tested by our courts, but this report adds further to the argument’s weight.

The report further supports its key conclusion by emphasising the goal of providing voters with lots of choice:

Under a Whole of State model, the vast majority of seats would be filled by groups or candidates reaching a quota. This model would maximise the choices available to voters, as they could vote for any group or candidate standing for election to the Legislative Council, across the state.” (p.12)

A few submissions had proposed system alternatives such as the MMP (‘mixed-member proportional’) variant of party list systems, combining some single-member electorates with extra seats given to party lists to make the overall chamber party-proportional. These options also were rejected, given their failure to meet the test of vote equality:

[W]e asked for submissions on “whether any other electoral model, not covered in this Discussion Paper, is better suited to achieve electoral equality. … The Committee is of the view that none of these other models would satisfy the objectives of the Terms of Reference.” (p.62)

Finally, the report also called for the abolition of the much-maligned ballot paper design device of ‘group voting tickets’, under which political parties can invite voters to adopt a full preference sequence of all candidates of the party’s choosing. The approach, used in some Australian elections since 1984, has come to be widely manipulated, and was abolished from Australian Senate elections from 2016.

The GVT device still has defenders among some micro-parties, because it helps them wrangle their way to winning seats, but most observers (me included) feel that this path to electoral success is too seriously lacking in genuine voter choice.

If the GVT device is abolished in WA, only the Victorian upper house will still use the method. The debate there has become rather entrenched, with the multi-coloured and diverse crossbench elected under the approach in 2018 staunchly defending the system continuing.

Practical issues

Observers are already eying warily the prospect of physically large ballot papers. Leading Australian elections commentator Antony Green comments here, and Ben Raue is here.

The report anticipates the problem, but is sanguine in accepting it as a trade-off necessary to deliver the ideal of voter equality that it was charged to consider.

The report does make additional recommendations aimed at ensuring that the ballot papers are not flooded with large numbers of minor candidates. There are proposed requirements for significant underlying memberships for registered parties (500 voters), signature requirements for independent candidates and for groups of candidates to use a single ballot paper column, and so on. These proposals are aimed at obliging candidacies to take significant action at the community grassroots level to organize politically in advance of elections. Were such laws introduced very close to an election, they might be unreasonable, but the next Council election is over three years away, leaving plenty of time to prepare for what is a much more democratic system of election. Independents will still be able to nominate with a basic level of local support.

There does remain the issue that WA is a physically enormous state, with very distinct regional interests. Political parties both large and small will still need to offer regional candidates and campaigns to focus votes if they are to maintain regional presences. But that is true now under the current electoral system. What would go is the unfair inequal weighting in favour of regional voters, which was the very thing the review was tasked to address.

Conclusion

Overall, the WA Ministerial Expert Committee Report expressly recommends that future Legislative Councils be elected using a single state-wide election conducted under STV rules, and using optional preferencing.

If legislated, the Council would become arguably the most democratic parliamentary chamber in the world, with extensive voter choice of direct representation by many candidates, with options from within or across party candidate lists, and effectively equal vote-weight influence for all voters.

At 37 seats, and with accountable 4-year terms, it would exceed in democratic credentials the NSW Legislative Council, made up of two separately elected groups of 21 members elected in two 4-year cycles for 8-year terms. (Most Australian jurisdictions hold elections on fixed four-year cycles.)

Future Council election results, as well as being fair to all voters, will be politically defensible. The balance between government and opposition seat numbers for the major parties will be right, small parties such as the Greens will receive reasonable representation, and micro-parties and independents will be elected whenever they can secure a sufficient, genuinely achieved base of voter support.

The politics of regional representation will become driven by actual voter choice and decisions, rather than corralled by malapportioned electoral divisions. The report adds its voice to measures to provide additional resourcing to remote and regional elected representatives.

Implementation of these recommendations may move quickly. The WA State Government, in releasing the report, has already announced that it will legislate for its adoption, adding the minor decision to increase the size of the Council by one seat to make an odd number of 37 seats.

The next Legislative Council elections will be in March 2025.

___

Update: the WA Government has today (16 September) presented to Parliament a Bill to implement the proposed changes, available here.

The Constitutional and Electoral Legislation Amendment (Electoral Equality) Bill 2021 does indeed implement the advice of the MEC report discussed above, bring in “Electoral equality for all electors entitled to vote in the Legislative Council by providing for a single electorate (the whole of State electorate) for the election of members of the Council.”

State Attorney-General John Quigley, introducing the Bill, defended the whole of state approach in place of the present regional system, and confirmed that the group voting ticket ballot paper device would also be scrapped.

3 comments on “Logic of ‘voter equality’ drives WA electoral reform

  1. J.W.J. Bowden
    September 16, 2021

    It’s very gratifying to find that one has influenced public policy! I’m glad to see you back on the blog, and I’m glad that the Ministerial Expert Committee in Western Australia quoted your rationale as the basis for its conclusion.

    • Malcolm Baalman
      September 16, 2021

      Thanks James. I will be keeping an eye on your Canadian election as well.

      • J.W.J. Bowden
        September 16, 2021

        I look forward to your take on it. We’re about to elect another hung parliament, which will have rendered the snap election futile.

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