On Elections

How people elect parliaments

Independent reviews of Australian electoral boundaries announced

Electoral boundaries for Australia’s national elections are being changed, and by a process entirely free of the gerrymandering that is afflicting elections in the United States, Malaysia and elsewhere.

Australia has a criterion-based, frequent and entirely non-partisan system for reviewing all its national and state electoral boundaries.

Under these arrangements, reviews are underway – with proposed new boundaries recently announced – for national House of Representatives divisions (districts) in the states of Victoria and South Australia and the Australian Capital Territory (ACT).

Established by legislation in 1984, the Australian review system is entirely in the hands of independent, non-partisan commissioners.

The Australian Constitution mandates that the numbers of House seats allocated to each of the six states must be recalculated every parliamentary term, which takes place on a roughly three-year cycle.

In recent decades the relatively faster-growing state of Queensland has gained a seat at several such re-calculations, with Western Australia and Victoria occasionally gaining seats. New South Wales and South Australia have occasionally lost seats, while Tasmania continually maintains the constitutional minimum of 5 seats at every election. The two represented Territories currently have 2 seats each, also in proportion to population as directed by legislation.

Under the 1984 electoral law, detailed reviews of the intra-state electoral division boundaries for the House of Representatives seats – termed ‘redistributions’ in Australia – must take place at least every seven years. This is one of the fastest refresh cycles in the world. If a state’s number of seats changes, an even earlier redistribution must be done.

These constitutional and statutory requirements together mean that each state’s House electoral division boundaries are typically used for only two elections in a row, and sometimes for just one election.

House boundary reviews are conducted by the independent Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) at the federal level, and similar processes are conducted by the equivalent state electoral commissions for the state parliaments. The independent commissioners – panels of public officials and judges – take into account population changes and local demographic factors about community of interest.

The resulting electoral boundaries are always ‘compact’ and where possible are linked to existing local government and physical boundaries.

In Australia there is none of the bizarre boundary mapping seen in US states such as North Carolina, Texas and (until a recent court ruling) Pennsylvania.

There is extensive consultation with stakeholders, and alternatives proposals are often put forward by political parties. But the final outcomes are always accepted by all parties. In Australia there is none of the hugely expensive litigation and resulting uncertainty that is plaguing US congressional and legislative boundary-making.

Since the last Australian federal election in mid-2016, a review of Tasmanian boundaries has been completed. Tasmania, Australia’s smallest state, is a special case. The state’s population would entitle it to around 3.5 House seats, but the Constitution provides for a minimum of 5 seats for every state. Tasmania reviews therefore usually involve only slight adjustments to the long-established boundaries, which date back to 1903.

The five Tasmanian national House divisional boundaries are also used for the conduct of Tasmanian state elections.

A redistribution of the boundaries in Queensland is almost complete. Here the number of divisions (30) has not increased (unusually for Queensland in recent years), but merely require localised adjustments.

In Victoria, the state’s allocation of seats must increase from 37 to 38, and in the past week a substantial boundary redistribution has been proposed. Detailed comments have been made by analysts Antony Green and Ben Raue.

Initial media reactions to the Victorian boundary proposals were that the redistribution would create one new safe seat for the opposition Labor party, and be helpful to Labor margins in a number of other divisions. With the current Liberal-National coalition government having a narrow majority, this makes the next federal election due in 2019 seem an even closer contest than was already expected.

In South Australia, the state is falling from 11 seats to 10, triggering various concerns among the affected MPs. The state is fairly evenly divided among Liberal and Labor members at present. Under the redistribution proposal – also announced last week – one nominally Labor-held seat appears to be abolished, but the impact of the boundary changes will propogate outward from this former division. Ben Raue’s analysis here.

The ACT redistribution sees the Territory’s allocation grow from 2 seats to 3, a significant change which alters the level of representation of voters there from being the lowest in the nation (ie: the most voters per seat) to among the highest. The new seat boundaries will generally continue to see fairly safe Labor party partisan margins in all three resulting seats.

Most Australian state electoral boundaries are named after geographical localities, but at the national level there is a tradition of naming the House of Representatives electoral divisions after famous Australia people, such as founding fathers, former prime ministers and scientific or military figures. Ben Raue has written a good analysis of the House electoral division naming conventions.

After this round of redistributions, two divisions will be named after people with a prominent role in electoral reform.

In South Australia, one of the new divisions in Adelaide will be named after Catherine Spence, a 19thcentury social reformer, champion of women’s right to vote (achieved in South Australia in 1895) and a proponent of single-transferable voting (STV) in both Australia and the US.

And in Tasmania, one of the five divisions will be renamed Clark, after the 1890s state Attorney-General Andrew Inglis Clark who (among other achievements) brought STV voting to that state, where it has remained in use for over a century.

The honouring of Clark is only the third time the name of Tasmanian division has changed since 1903. Amusingly, on each of the three occasions the officials have been careful to preserve the alphabetical order of the five division names.

Australia’s next House of Representatives election is not due until mid-2019, but the Prime Minister could call an early election in the second half of 2018.

5 comments on “Independent reviews of Australian electoral boundaries announced

  1. Oli
    April 17, 2018

    The Australian system of a review automatically being triggered when a state’s population causes its allocation to change sounds fairer and more efficient than the one we have in the UK at present.

    You twice state that the next federal general election is due in 1919, though. Bit late for that!

    • Malcolm Baalman
      April 17, 2018

      Upcoming “1919” elections, LOL – blame my typing! Too many centuries being mentioned in the one post. Fixed now.

      The UK system is getting closer to good, but still relies on parliamentary approval, and has been gridlocked for years now – https://onelections.net/2017/09/06/will-the-uk-ever-get-revised-electoral-boundaries/

      • Oli
        April 18, 2018

        Yeah, I count 2 centuries, plus another in the article about naming conventions that you linked to. Not to worry.

        Australia brings to mind the German system of redistricting the federal FPTP seats (in which malapportionment doesn’t matter so much since any discrepancies are corrected absolutely by the proportional element anyway). There were nationwide reviews before the 2002 and 2013 elections, but between those there can be mini-reviews, such as the one carried out before the 2017 in Bavaria and Thuringia only (the former gained a seat at the expense of the latter, due to population shifts).

        In the UK the inability for small reviews to take place in one constituent country or region is a big problem. The all-or-nothing approach only leads to delays in implementing new boundaries. The seats used in Scotland for Westminster elections were drawn up in 2004 using data from (I think) 2001. It’s possible there will have been 2 reviews of all Holyrood constituencies before the House of Commons ones are updated and replaced.

  2. Malcolm Baalman
    April 18, 2018

    I don’t know what process is used for the Scottish Parliament boundary reviews. I vaguely recall that the electoral regions are based on House of Commons constituency boundaries, but I could be wrong.

    Another specific issue with the UK House of Commons boundaries is that the UK system for electoral registration has actually been somewhat improved in recent years, but when last I looked the current boundary review proposals still use data that is already somewhat out-of-date. That matters because the new system has been capturing large numbers of new voters, and in particular younger voters. If the UK boundaries are soon concluded on 2-3 year old data, they will create an extra degree of discrimination (in addition to that which is inherent in any single-member division system) with a modest degree of age-based discrimination.

    As I point out in the main post, none of this needs to be so – even in single-member division systems. Just establish a regular, independent, self-executing administrative process using the most recent available data. It doesn’t get any cheaper, fairer and less contestable than that.

    • Oli
      April 18, 2018

      The Scottish Parliament electoral regions were based on old European Parliament constituencies from 1999 to 2011. Since 2011 they have been decoupled from both that and the Westminster boundaries and are no longer coterminous with any other layer of government. The 2004 Act makes provision for 70 mainland Scottish seats established by regular (but still infrequent) reviews under the less rigid ‘old rules’ from before the 2011 Act.

      Yes, it’s correct to say that the current UK review is using electoral data from December 2015. Even if adopted, it would miss many voters who joined the register in the run-up to the June 2016 referendum and June 2017 general election. I quite agree that bringing a version of the Australian system onto the British statute books would be a sensible move.

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