Do the Canberra shuffle

If you’re one of the few thousand Canberra voters who are directly affected, you probably don’t much care about the Electoral Commission’s current proposal to alter the boundary between the safe Labor electorates of Canberra and Fraser. If you’re not, you probably don’t care at all. But the Poll Bludger fancies itself as Australia’s online psephological journal of record, and accordingly feels compelled to make note of the event.

The Electoral Act requires that redistributions within a state and territory take place every seven years, unless one is required at an earlier time due to changes in the spread of population or the number of seats allocated to the state or territory. This one is happening for the former reason, 1997 being the year in which the ACT’s brief hold on a third electorate came to an end. Charles Richardson at Crikey explains the proposed boundary adjustment thus:

The current boundary between them mostly follows the Molonglo River and Lake Burley Griffin, but to even up enrolments between them it deviates south to include the suburbs of Barton, Griffith, Kingston and Narrabundah in the northern seat (Fraser). In recent years, however, population growth has been stronger in the north, so it’s now possible to move the boundary to follow the lake and the river the whole way, and that is what the committee proposes. Simple (although they take 17 pages to explain it).

The affected area is slightly more Liberal-leaning than the Canberra average, such that Annette Ellis might find her current margin of 9.5 per cent slightly garnished while Bob McMullan will get more padding on his existing 13.3 per cent. Lest the significance of this be dismissed too lightly, be it noted that a 16.2 per cent swing saw the Liberals comfortably win Canberra at a by-election on 25 March 1995 following Ros "Whiteboard" Kelly’s self-indulgent mid-term retirement (the victor being current ACT Opposition Leader Brendan Smyth). That complication aside, redistribution fans will find greater excitement in the following revelations of Malcolm Mackerras in the Canberra Times:

Some time in December this year the new Electoral Commissioner, Ian Campbell, will ascertain the populations of the states and territories for the purpose of determining the number of members to which each state and territory will be entitled in the next (42nd) Parliament. It is very probable that NSW will lose a seat while Queensland will gain one. Thus will be set in train next year the second (for NSW) and third (for Queensland) federal redistributions of the current (41st) Parliament. How do I know that?

Do tell, Professor M.

The answer is that I have done calculations estimating the entitlements of the states and territories for the 2007 election for the 42nd Parliament … There is no point in speculating what next year’s maps for those states will do. However, it is worth noting that one seat will be watched very closely – John Howard’s marginal seat of Bennelong in Sydney’s north western suburbs, covering Epping, Eastwood, Gladesville Marsfield, Meadowbank, Putney and Ryde. Bennelong will need to increase the number of its electors from the present 86,000 to about 91,000. The swing required for Bennelong to fall to Labor is presently a mere 4.4 per cent. Of the 12 seats in metropolitan Sydney held by the Liberal Party, Bennelong is the second most marginal, next only to Greenway which was a Labor seat until the 2004 election when it was gained by the Liberal Party.

Mackerras is no doubt right when he says there is "no point speculating" what the redrawn boundaries might look like. But it’s tempting to conclude that Bennelong, if not abolished entirely, would move westwards, since the electorates between it and the Pacific Ocean would need to enlarge also. That would involve an incursion into the newly Labor electorate of Parramatta (albeit into its more Liberal-leaning eastern parts) and a further softening of the Prime Minister’s precarious 4.3 per cent margin. On a less speculative note, if Mackerras is correct a seat will be transferred from the relatively strong Labor state of New South Wales (where it holds 42 per cent of the seats) to the extremely weak one of Queensland (21.4 per cent).

Author: William Bowe

William Bowe is a Perth-based election analyst and occasional teacher of political science. His blog, The Poll Bludger, has existed in one form or another since 2004, and is one of the most heavily trafficked websites on Australian politics.