Foreword: Most of the following was written before I noticed that pretty much everything in it had already been said by Antony Green.
The Victorian Electoral Commission has released its proposed boundaries for the reformed Legislative Council, the political implications of which are discussed by Paul Austin in The Age. Austin reckons it "one of the most remarkable own goals in Victoria’s political history", for two reasons. Firstly, Steve Bracks does not appear to appreciate the likely impact on his party’s fractious state branch of sending 25 sitting members chasing after 20 or so winnable seats. Secondly, he has ensured that Labor "will almost certainly never again have the Legislative Council". The first point is political which makes it Austin’s turn rather than mine, and I do not doubt for a moment that he is correct. But the second is psephological and here I flatter myself to imagine that my assessment might be worth something.
Previously, the Council consisted of 22 provinces each made up of four lower house districts, which were represented by two members elected at alternating elections and serving eight-year terms. Under the reforms, the chamber will consist of eight five-member regions covering 11 lower house districts each, elected by much the same method as the Senate and other mainland state upper houses. The quota for election will be 16.7 per cent, in common with five-seat regions for the Legislative Council in Western Australian and the Legislative Assembly in Tasmania and the Australian Capital Territory. Conveniently, no redistribution has been conducted for the lower house, so it can easily be inferred what outcome would have been produced by the results from the last election.
In carving up the pie, the commissioners have predictably aspired to create distinctly metropolitan and rural regions, for which there is room for five and three respectively (despite what the Nationals think – they proposed two non-metropolitan regions in the hope of concentrating their support). Two of the rural electorates largely draw themselves – Western Victoria, from the outskirts between Melbourne and Geelong out to the South Australian border, and Northern Victoria, from Mildura in the west to the line of the Yarra and Great Dividing Range in the east. Eastern Victoria untangles itself from Melbourne a little more messily, sneaking into the southern part of the Mornington Peninsula and absorbing two electorates (Monbulk and Evelyn) that the sprawl is beginning to catch up with.
Moving into the city, the Yarra is an obvious dividing line since it contains 23 districts to the north and 32 to the south, allowing for a neat division after one northern district (Eltham) is conceded to the south. The division of the two northern regions leaves the inner city seats of Melbourne and Richmond at the south-western extremity of the Northern Metropolitan region. South of the river, Southern Metropolitan consists of the Liberal-leaning areas nearest the city, South Eastern Metropolitan covers a more distant stretch of the bayside inland to Narre Warren, and Eastern Metropolitan takes in the electorally volatile mortgage belt from Box Hill west to Kilsyth and Eltham south to Ferntree Gully.
The voting system will be the same as that introduced for the New South Wales Legislative Council for the 2003 election, with voters able to number either a single box above-the-line (as per the Senate and the upper houses of Western Australia and South Australia) or a number of boxes below the line equal to the number of vacancies up for election (also the case for the Tasmanian lower house). One difference in relation to the below-the-line option is that New South Wales elects 15 members from a single statewide electorate whereas Victoria’s regions have five members, meaning below-the-line voters will need to number only a third as many boxes. Even so, the rate of above-the-line voting is unlikely to be dramatically lower than the 98 per cent recorded at the 2003 election in New South Wales. This leaves open the prospect of results determined by the parties’ registered preference tickets, such as that in the five-member Western Australian region of South Metropolitan where the Fremantle Hospital Support Group came within an ace of winning a seat at the recent state election from 1.3 per cent of the vote.
The following table presents the votes in each region based on the results of the 2002 election. Obviously this election was atypical, so I have massaged the data to produce a second set of results in which both parties score an equal share of the statewide major party vote. Another point to consider is that the adjusted figures on the right greatly underestimate the likely "others" vote, which ran at 2.7 per cent at the 2002 state election compared with 11.0 per cent in the Senate last year. The latter might be thought a more reliable guide as there will now be many more candidates, due to the bigger electorates and better prospects for success.
|.||2002 RESULT||50/50 OUTCOME|
|South Eastern Metropolitan||54.4||34.7||8.9||2.0||50.2||38.9||8.9||2.0|
Northern Metropolitan. All parties’ submissions except Labor’s agreed that this region should contain the Greens’ two strongest divisions, Melbourne and Richmond, boosting their vote above 16.7 per cent quota and assuring them of a seat. Labor can be equally sure of three seats since its vote is above 50 per cent on every measure, with the leftover going to the Liberals.
Eastern Metropolitan. The various proposals for this region did not differ dramatically. Labor and Liberal can expect to win two seats each with the fifth going either to the Liberals or the Greens, or possibly Labor if there is a repeat of the 2002 landslide. For reasons explained in the conclusion below, this region looms as the one to watch if Labor is doing particularly well.
Southern Metropolitan. A similar story to Eastern Metropolitan, except that Labor’s chances of a third seat are non-existent rather than slight.
Western Metropolitan. Labor would have the latte left divisions of Melbourne and Richmond located here rather than Northern Metropolitan, although they clearly share a closer community of interest with Northcote and Brunswick than Footscray and Essendon. Labor would presumably like a thinner spread of the Greens vote, although if they had their way they might well win seats in both regions. Significantly, the Liberals wanted to be stronger in this region by having it extend far beyond Labor’s western suburbs heartland to Geelong. This would have given them a much better chance of winning a second seat, which would have loomed large in their scenarios for a potential upper houes majority. As things stand, it’s a certain three seats to Labor and one to Liberal, with Liberal and the Greens battling it out for fifth spot. P.S.: Antony Green wisely notes "the odd chance of a minor party winning Labor’s third seat on Liberal preferences". The Greens’ vote is low enough that a fringe player could conceivably get ahead of them, while Labor have easily enough votes for three seats but not enough for four. If Glenn Druery’s out there, he might care to give this one a bash.
South Eastern Metropolitan. All proposals had this as the least Greens-friendly region in the metropolitan area. Labor would usually win three seats and the Liberals two, although this would sometimes be reversed.
Northern Victoria. The quirkiest aspect of the Liberals’ submission was their recommendation that this region encroach upon the metropolitan area to take in Broadmeadows, this being a necessary consequence of their scheme for Western Metropolitan outlined above. This would have come at the expense of a certain third Coalition seat here, the victims of which have been the Nationals rather than the Liberals. As it stands, it’s hard to conceive of an outcome here other than two Labor, two Liberal and one Nationals. P.S.: Antony Green reckons the Liberals and Nationals would compete for the final seat, correctly calculating that a normal result would give the Liberals a substantial surplus over their second quota.
Western Victoria. The Liberals wanted this region to be stronger for the Coalition by including the locality of Bendigo rather than Geelong. Instead, the Coalition will have a fight on their hands to win a third seat. The Greens are not without a chance, but it will usually be a race to see if Labor can get enough preferences from them to pip the Coalition. The urban territory means that a third Coalition seat would be unlikely to go to the Nationals. P.S.: Antony Green says the Nationals are an outside chance if Labor polls poorly and gives them preferences ahead of the Liberals.
Eastern Victoria. The VEC’s proposal for this region is the same as Labor’s submission, while the Liberals’ differs by two seats. The Liberals’ proposal would have increased the chance of a third Coalition seat going to to the Nationals rather than the Liberals, although a Nationals win would still have been more likely. In any case, an outcome of three Coalition and two Labor is almost guaranteed.
Tally all that together, and a landslide could see Labor win an absolute majority of 21 seats, especially if they get the wind in their sails in Eastern Metropolitan. The Coalition faces a bigger challenge in that there are two regions where they can normally expect to win only one seat. Any scenario for 21 seats requires that they win two in either Northern Metropolitan or Western Metropolitan, the latter looking more likely. The Nationals can expect only two seats rather than their current four – as Paul Austin notes, this gives them little hope of maintaining the 10 seats required for party status, unless they can dislodge those pesky lower house independents (it should be noted that one-vote one-value legislation has left their Western Australian counterparts similarly placed). The Greens are likely to secure a permanent home in Northern Metropolitan, but beyond that their prospects are hard to call. They could conceivably win as many as five seats, but two would be more typical. Along with the odd independent or micro-party member, there is little doubt that they will hold the balance of power more often than not.