The extent of Labor’s massive election victory has consequences for democracy, climate action and electoral reform in Western Australia.
Labor, as expected, has won the Western Australian state election. The party will retain and increase its majority of seats in the state parliament’s lower house, allowing incumbent Premier Mark McGowan to continue as the state’s head of government.
The biggest news, however, comes from the oft-overlooked upper house results. Labor is set to win a majority of seats in Western Australia’s Legislative Council for the first time ever. With control of both chambers of parliament, Mark McGowan’s Labor government will be able to wield enormous power in Western Australia.
Labor will be able to pass bills unilaterally
In the previous term of parliament, Labor had a majority of seats in the lower house, but only held 14 of 36 seats in the upper house. To pass a bill through the upper house, it had to work with the Opposition or a selection of crossbenchers, who were able to keep the government in check and encourage compromise. That is how the upper house is supposed to function. Western Australia’s Legislative Council, like other upper houses in bicameral Australian parliaments, was designed as a ‘house of review’ with the purpose of scrutinising bills passed by the Legislative Assembly. Of course, government-introduced bills cannot be properly scrutinised by a chamber in which the government holds a majority of seats, hence the proportional representation system used to elect the Legislative Council. The use of multi-member electorates, as opposed to the single-member electorates used to elect the Legislative Assembly, generally makes it more difficult for one party to win a majority of seats in the Legislative Council. However, a landslide result such as Labor’s 2021 victory can still yield an upper house majority.
Some commentators have suggested that Labor winning a majority in both houses of parliament would be ‘undemocratic’. On the contrary, if the will of the people is for Labor to control both houses, it is surely democratic for that will to be respected. However, Labor’s double majority will prevent other parties from keeping the government in check and holding it to account. Bills introduced by the government will be able to sail through parliament without facing meaningful scrutiny, and Labor will no longer have to compromise with other elected representatives, meaning it can push through more extreme legislation.
Labor’s legislative power in Western Australia will still be restricted by the state’s Constitution Act and the Commonwealth Constitution, but otherwise, there will be few limitations. This sort of scenario is hardly unprecedented in Australia. The federal parliament, for example, had a Liberal-National majority in both chambers between the 2004 and 2007 elections. Queensland’s state parliament doesn’t even have two chambers, which means the party that controls the state’s unicameral legislature is constantly free from the scrutiny of an upper house. So far, these situations are yet to lead to the demise of democracy, and there is little reason to be terrified of one party controlling both houses of parliament, although it is not an ideal environment for compromise or accountability.
Climate action will be slow
Labor’s parliamentary dominance is bad news for climate action. Liberal Party leader Zak Kirkup proposed swift and substantial action to combat climate change during the election campaign, including a plan to close all publicly owned coal-fired power stations by 2025 and a target of net zero carbon emissions from state government assets by 2030. The Liberals also promised huge amounts of spending on the transition to more environmentally-friendly transport, including $24 million on expanding the electric vehicle network and $8 million on stamp duty rebates for purchases of electric and hydrogen vehicles.
In contrast, Labor’s climate policies were more conservative and more vague. In response to the Liberal Party’s progressive climate policy, Premier Mark McGowan stated that “everyone should be very fearful about what [the Liberals] have just put forward,” claiming that “all it would mean is many, many billions of extra debt, huge increase in family power bills, rolling blackouts across the state and huge job losses.”
In 2019, the McGowan government emphatically rejected a recommendation by the state’s Environmental Protection Authority that major liquefied natural gas programs should be required to offset their carbon emissions. Climate action has been slow under the McGowan government, and with the Greens now rendered virtually irrelevant in the upper house after Saturday’s election, the pace is unlikely to improve.
Progressives were left disappointed by the results of the state election, which recorded a huge surge of approval for Mark McGowan’s conservative Labor government, a decline in representation for the Greens and a swing against the Liberal Party, which had become considerably more progressive since the previous election.
Substantial electoral reform is unlikely
As a result of malapportionment in Western Australia’s electoral system, rural areas currently enjoy disproportionately large representation in the Legislative Council.
During the televised election debate, Mark McGowan was asked whether he would reform the system to end malapportionment. McGowan answered that it was “not on [his] agenda” and promised that his government would “always ensure that regional WA receives enhanced representation” in the state parliament.
If McGowan keeps his promise, any adjustment to the state’s electoral system won’t fully remove malapportionment.