CGM Voices by author: Amy Blom

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A fix for WA’s Upper House on the horizon?

A fix for WA’s Upper House on the horizon?

By Amy Blom

The dust has settled on the 2021 election, but the emergence of three unlikely winners could prove to be the catalyst for a long-awaited change to WA’s Upper House voting system.

As the votes were finalised last week, it was confirmed that micro-party Legalise Cannabis WA had secured two Upper House seats despite attracting a total of just 1.98 per cent of first-preference votes statewide.

The Daylight Savings Party’s Wilson Tucker won a spot in the Mining and Pastoral Region with just 0.24 per cent or 98 votes. Mr Tucker, who currently lives in Seattle, has confirmed that he will return to WA to take his seat in Parliament.

According to the WA Electoral Commission, to be eligible for election to the Upper House, candidates must be at least 18, an Australian citizen for at least one year, not be subject to any legal incapacity and be an elector entitled to vote in a district. Candidates do not have to currently reside in WA and under the state’s group voting ticket system, they do not necessarily have to attract a substantial number of first-preference votes.

This leaves the system open to convoluted preference deals between micro-parties, which can see them elected in front of other parties that have secured substantially more first-preference votes.

The opportunity for micro-parties with very low first-preference votes to win seats in our Parliament has earned WA the title of the worst voting system in the country, according to ABC election analyst Antony Green.

Aside from the group voting ticket system, the other fairness issue for Upper House elections is the over-representation of regional voters in Parliament, known as malapportionment. Although more than 75 per cent of WA’s population reside in the Perth metropolitan region, it is only home to half of the state’s six Upper House regions. The population distribution across the regions means that a vote in the Agricultural Region carries almost four times the weight of a Perth vote, while the Mining and Pastoral region has almost six times the power of those in Perth.

Premier Mark McGowan has already flagged potential reform to deal with the issues having stated that “the Legislative Council results have exposed a broken system”.

But what could those reforms look like?

Any proposed changes to the Upper House tend to come with the suggestion that it be abolished altogether, as then-deputy Liberal leader Colin Barnett proposed to The Australian in 1999. His reported view at the time was that having two houses of Parliament was a luxury the state could not afford. In 2007, when he was Opposition leader, Mr Barnett backed away from abolishing the Upper House, but said members should have their electorate offices scrapped

Although there is some precedent for abolishing the Upper House – Queensland’s Labor Party did it in 1922 – it is unlikely to happen here for several reasons, the first being that WA has a long history of possessing a strong Upper House and, whether we like it or not, West Australians tend to side with tradition. Ironically, there’s perhaps no better example of this than WA’s resistance to daylight savings in the state.

There is also a serious roadblock to any attempt to abolish the Upper House thanks to legislation pushed through in the late 1970s by then-premier Sir Charles Court, which noted that the number of Members of the Legislative Council could not be reduced, or the chamber abolished, without the approval of a referendum.

More importantly, the Upper House is unlikely to go because it serves an important function as a house of review. The review process acknowledges that imperfect legislation carries a risk of unacceptable consequences, and therefore, every care must be taken to get it right before it becomes law. It also allows for legislation to be delayed, providing more time for public opinion to be included in the legislative process, as frustrating as that process may be for the government and the public.

The WA Legislative Council is here to stay, but it could be reformed to make it more representative.

The first reform the McGowan Government could consider would be to borrow from the changes to the Senate voting system.

Prior to 2016, the Senate voting system was similar to WA’s Upper House. Voters could cast their ballot for a party by marking just one box above the line, leaving the rest up to the preference deals worked out by political parties. Or they could vote for individual candidates below the line by marking a large number of boxes – the South Metropolitan Region had 64 this election – without making a mistake. The system led to incongruous results in 2004, 2010 and 2013, before a new system was implemented in 2016.

Now, voters are able to number at least six boxes above the line for the parties or groups of their choice, or at least 12 boxes below the line for individual candidates of their choice.

Despite concerns from smaller parties, the 2016 election showed that they can still gain seats, but they must have reasonable first preference flows. It also discourages those with specific constituencies, such as platforms based on religion or environmental concerns, from splitting off into fringe or single-issue parties.

This reduces the length of the ballot paper, makes it easier for voters to navigate, and it reduces incongruent results.

The second fix the McGowan Government could explore would be to address the malapportionment issue by re-examining the number of seats available in each region so that representation is better aligned to population.

This could prove to be a bigger challenge than fixing the group voting ticket system as it would be strongly opposed by the Nationals and regional Liberals like Steve Thomas, who had his country seat of Capel abolished in 2008 before moving to the Upper House.

Regardless of what electoral reforms the Government investigates, the Premier has made it clear that it is on the agenda.

Fake news and the COVID rumour mill

Fake news and the COVID rumour mill

By Amy Blom

Accessing and sharing accurate content has never been more important in Western Australia as we navigate our second lockdown, an upcoming vaccine rollout and the state election in March. However, the ability to spread rumours on social media as quickly as facts means we all need to be careful about what we read and share online.

Digital platforms like Facebook and Twitter have increasingly become the primary tool for government to get its message out to the public without relying on traditional media channels. As we saw this week, this can be extremely effective in times of crisis when important information must be communicated quickly to an entire state.

Regardless of where you were on Sunday, whether you were out and about or in front of a television you would have known almost immediately through social media that most of WA’s population was about to go into lockdown following the first case of community spread of COVID-19 in almost 10 months. Through social media we were able to find out if we had visited the same places as the infected hotel quarantine guard and exactly where we could be tested if there had been any chance of contact.

The flipside is that this week, social media also allowed frightening and baseless rumours to run rife through the community. There were stories that although no new cases had been recorded by the time Premier Mark McGowan gave his press conference on Monday, up to 21 new cases were about to be declared.

Those with the correct information were quick to act on the rumours. Mr McGowan took to social media on Monday night to dispel them and remind people to only share news and information from official or trusted sources. The West Australian’s editor, Anthony De Ceglie, used a front-page editorial to help set the record straight and to remind people that if they did not read it in a proper news publication, then the information was probably inaccurate.

Unfortunately, this week’s rumours about new coronavirus cases are not isolated examples of inaccurate information being shared on social media in Western Australia. Spend long enough online and you will find countless examples of misinformation, whether deliberate or unintentional, about the coronavirus and more. It can be easy to be sucked in by some of this misinformation, particularly when you see that it’s been shared by a contact of yours. When you share it, you’re contributing to its spread, whether you mean to or not.

The best way to avoid spreading the problem is to watch the daily briefings by the Premier, Health Minister, and Chief Health Officer, which are hosted on various platforms. If there is anything you missed or you need more information visit official government websites such as www.healthywa.wa.gov.au. Additionally, get your news from reputable organisations like The West Australian, WAToday, the ABC, and the major television and radio stations. Unlike social media platforms, traditional media organisations such as these are subject to regulations and codes of conduct, which makes them a more reliable source. Many of them may now be behind a paywall, but don’t let that put you off. A subscription is a small price to pay to be confident that your information is correct before you hit the share button.

Meet the new leader of the WA Opposition

Meet the new leader of the WA Opposition

By Amy Blom

Member for Dawesville Zak Kirkup will lead the WA Liberals to the next election in March 2021 after being elected party leader unopposed on Tuesday.

The 33-year-old is the youngest person to hold the position within the party, taking the title from Matt Birney, who was 35 when he became leader in 2001. He is the second-youngest Opposition leader in WA’s history, after Labor’s Thomas Bath, who took on the job in 1906 at the age of 31.

Mr Kirkup’s political aspirations have been clear since he was 17, when he handed then-prime minister John Howard a business card with the words ‘Zak R.F. Kirkup, Young Liberal, Future Prime Minister’ printed on it during a 2004 appearance at Midland Town Hall while Mr Kirkup was a student at Governor Stirling Senior High School.

During his maiden speech, Mr Kirkup said his interest in politics stemmed from early childhood when his mother, who was a member of Greenpeace, would sit at the kitchen table and talk about protesting nuclear testing in the Pacific Ocean, while his father would quiz him about prime ministers, premiers and treasurers.

Coming from a working-class background, Mr Kirkup became the first of his family to attend university. However, as he said in his maiden speech, it wasn’t for him, so he left to pursue a career in politics, volunteering in several positions before taking a position with the late senator Judith Adams.

He began working for the WA Liberal Party in 2006 and rose through the ranks to become the youngest ever Deputy State Director before serving as an advisor to Premier Colin Barnett.

Taking a break from politics in 2013 to work at BGC, Mr Kirkup was elected to the seat of Dawesville in the 2017 election, replacing retiring MP Kim Hames. Following his election, he used his maiden speech to highlight the need for Western Australia to diversify its economy beyond the agricultural and resources sectors, and for government to accommodate emerging industries.

Mr Kirkup used the same speech to reflect on the historical treatment of Indigenous West Australians, stating that it was “worth noting that we are standing in the very place that voted in favour of a series of oppressive and draconian pieces of legislation that sought to restrict and oppress the rights of all Aboriginal people” including members of his family. In 1904, his ancestor Thomas Kirkup was forbidden by the Geraldton magistrate to marry his fiancée because he did not have the consent of the Chief Protector of Aborigines. Mr Kirkup’s grandfather Brian, an Aboriginal man born in WA’s Midwest in 1941, was unable to own property or a business for much of his life. Mr Kirkup said the recognition of his family’s history would continue to remind him that the position of a Member of Parliament was to “forever to guard against the infringement of personal rights and freedoms”.

Within a year of being elected he had become the shadow minister for corrective services and in 2019 he was assigned shadow portfolios in health, mental health and Aboriginal affairs.

Upon Mr Kirkup’s first front bench appointment, then-opposition leader Mike Nahan described him as “energetic and hard-working”. Other colleagues have described Mr Kirkup’s time as an MP as “impressive” and talk about his future leadership potential began as early as last year when Mr Nahan announced his resignation as party leader.

In his first statements to reporters after being elected Opposition leader, Mr Kirkup said the WA Liberals would support the McGowan Government’s COVID-19 health measures and that the party would be guided by advice from the Chief Health Officer. Moving beyond the pandemic, Mr Kirkup said his other focuses would be keeping West Australians “safe in their jobs” as he promised a “smarter and safer today, and brighter and better tomorrow”.

Mr Kirkup’s election as Opposition leader came after Liza Harvey announced she would step down to give the party an opportunity to “reset” its election strategy.