How people elect parliaments
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.