Whether it is healthcare or education, accessing services in the regions comes with an extra layer of time and money, according to Mullewa farmer Julie Freeman.
For 30 years, she has called the town home — about an hour’s drive from Geraldton, in WA’s Mid West — and she knows how tough life in the bush can be.
“We consistently do worse on just about every measure,” Ms Freeman said.
“We do worse in educational outcomes, we do worse in health outcomes, we do worse in standard of living, we do worse in economic prosperity.”
She calls herself lucky for having a GP in town.
But the wheat and canola farmer has been concerned life may get tougher if the state government moves to decrease the number of regional representatives in WA’s Upper House to weight it more fairly towards the city, where the vast majority of Western Australians live.
Ms Freeman was one of dozens of people who lodged a submission to an expert panel looking into electoral reform in the Upper House.
She felt regional voters were misled by Labor who, in the lead-up to the election, gave repeated reassurances electoral reform was not on the agenda, before making it one of their top priorities after swooping into parliament.
Fears ‘vested interests’ will prevail
In Pingelly, two hours east of Perth, WA Farmers president John Hassell knows better than most the struggles facing those in the regions.
And it does not take him long to start rattling off statistics about how much harder it is for regional people to access healthcare.
On the drive to his property in the Upper House’s Agricultural region, mobile phone reception drops in and out, and it makes him concerned about potential emergencies.
Telephone coverage and infrastructure were among the issues that he feared would be swamped by city-based concerns if there were more metropolitan MPs.
“When the city MPs have got the numbers, then they’re going to do what suits them,” he said.
Mr Hassell previously ran as a federal Nationals candidate and he remains engaged in politics.
He said the way the Senate works — giving each Australian state equal representation — provided balance and he was afraid of losing that balance on a state-level.
“When the regional areas are doing well, then the whole state does well,” he said.
Current system ‘not sustainable’
The Upper House is where draft laws are sent for review — members consider the effect the laws would have on the community and if changes need to be made.
Among experts, there is a strong belief electoral reform is needed.
In the most dramatic of examples, 4 per cent of voters live in the Mining and Pastoral region, but they elect nearly 17 per cent of Upper House members, making their vote six times as powerful.
Election analyst William Bowe said the scale of the existing weighting was “not sustainable and not defensible”.
Tyranny of distance at work
But experts agreed there would need to be some weighting towards the country because of the sheer size of the state.
For example, the size of the Mining and Pastoral region was two million square kilometres, or around the size of Mexico.
The Kimberley Regional Group — which represents four Kimberley shires — is acutely aware of the size of the seat.
“There’s 120, 130-odd Aboriginal communities in the Kimberley, there’s pastoral stations, there’s the six main towns throughout the Kimberley, and we haven’t got direct flights into all those towns,” the group’s chair Chris Mitchell said.
“The tyranny of distance is incredible.”
Mr Mitchell said it was already hard enough for MPs to get around the region, and if there were fewer regional MPs he believed they would be able to listen to constituents less frequently.
“We really need MPs to be up here for several days, so they can talk to as many people as possible,” he said.
“Our voice will be more of a whisper than something to listen to.”
Compromise a likely option
Mr Bowe said there were a number of ways the system could be reformed, which included abolishing regions altogether and making the state one big electorate — like in South Australia and New South Wales, where every vote is equal.
Or, it could involve reducing the regions from six to four, with three metropolitan regions and one non-metropolitan region.
Mr Bowe said there would likely be a “compromise”.
“[A compromise] is going to put more voting power away from the regional areas and towards the city, but not to the extent of pure one vote, one value where everyone’s vote would be perfectly equal,” he said.
Professor of Political Science at the University of WA, Benjamin Reilly, said that model would most likely win broad support in parliament.
But in response to the whole-of-state approach, he said it would be possible for Legislative Council MPs to represent the entire state, similar to Senators at a federal level.
‘Genuinely in danger’: election analyst
Labor has 22 MPs in the Legislative Council, of which almost half represent the regions, and experts and politicians alike do not believe Labor would opt for a strategy that abandons the bush.
But Mr Bowe said regional issues were still at real risk of being marginalised because the parliament would be “overwhelmingly dominated” by suburban members.
“The very distinctive issues that country areas [and] regional cities face, really are genuinely in danger of being swamped,” he said.
The expert committee, led by Malcolm McCusker QC, has been asked to provide recommendations on how “electoral equality” might be achieved for all citizens.
But some in the regions argue it should be about equity, not equality.
The committee’s other task has been to make recommendations on the distribution of preferences in the Upper House, after Daylight Saving candidate Wilson Tucker swept to victory with fewer than 100 votes.
In a statement, Electoral Affairs Minister John Quigley said Mr Tucker’s win was notable given “four referendums over five decades have shown little support for daylight saving in that [Mining and Pastoral] region”.
“This is hardly a genuinely democratic outcome”, Mr Quigley said.
The committee has been considering public submissions and is due to report to the state government by the end of June.