Drawing the lines

The South Australian Electoral Districts Boundaries Commission has today unveiled its draft redistribution of state electoral boundaries, to take effect when the next election is held on March 20, 2010. South Australian redistributions tend not to be greatly momentous, as they are conducted every term. Their other distinguishing feature is that the commissioners are obliged to meet the demands of "electoral fairness", which they endeavour to achieve through boundaries that will deliver a majority to the side of politics that wins the majority of the two-party preferred vote, assuming a uniform swing. Since Labor won 56.8 per cent of the two-party vote in last year’s election, and the Labor side was deemed to have won 30 of the lower house’s 47 seats (including the independent-held seats of Mitchell and Fisher, more on which shortly), their objective was to produce boundaries in which seven seats on the Labor side would fall in the event of a 6.9 per cent swing.

This of course requires the commissioners to work around the vote for independents and minor parties, which in the South Australian context includes the Nationals. This was done by re-calculating preference distributions in seats that did not produce Labor-versus-Liberal two-party results, so that Labor and Liberal candidates were not eliminated at earlier points in the count. On this basis, the independent-held seats of Mitchell and Fisher respectively produced Labor margins of 14.7 per cent and 8.5 per cent, while Mount Gambier produced a Liberal margin of 6.1 per cent. A re-calculation was also necessary in the Nationals’ sole seat of Chaffey as the final two-party result was between the Nationals and Liberal candidates; it produced a Liberal majority over Labor of 21.9 per cent. The Liberal Party’s submission to the commission argued that Chaffey and Mount Gambier should be treated as Labor seats on the grounds that their members, Karlene Maywald and Rory McEwen, have been part of Mike Rann’s cabinet since the pre-election period when Labor did not have a parliamentary majority. If the commission had agreed to this, it would have been required to bring the margins in two extra Labor seats below the level where a uniform swing would have given the Liberals a two-party preferred majority. Since both seats are overwhelmingly conservative by nature, the commission was quite right to reject this self-serving proposal.

Based on the result of last year’s election, the Liberals would have needed a uniform swing of 9.5 per cent rather than 6.9 per cent to win seven seats and government, so the commissioners needed to cut the Labor margins in Bright (9.5 per cent), Morialta (8.0 per cent) and Newland (6.9 per cent) to bring them below the latter figure. To this end, it has been proposed that Bright move north along the coast to take in North Brighton and the southern part of Somerton Park from the Glenelg-based Liberal seat of Morphett, while the industrial area of Lonsdale and the Labor stronghold of O’Sullivan Beach to the south will be transferred to Kaurna. This has cut the Labor margin by 2.6 per cent, making sitting member Chloe Fox the redistribution’s biggest loser. Morialta combines Labor-voting outer eastern suburbs with lightly populated conservative territory in the Adelaide Hills beyond – here the margin has been cut to 6.8 per cent through a transfer at the suburb of Paradise to Hartley in the west, while in the south a stretch of hills territory from Skye east to Basket Range has been added from Bragg and Heysen. Newland, which is immediately to the north of Morialta, has been pulled eastwards into Upper Hermitage, Lower Hermitage and Paracombe by population growth in the outer suburbs, which has done the commission’s job for it by cutting the Labor margin from 6.9 per cent to 5.2 per cent. The Labor members to suffer from these changes are Lindsay Simmons in Morialta and Tom Kenyon in Newland.

Other amendments have been driven by changes in the population distribution, and are only of political interest at the bottom end of the pendulum. The eastern inner-city seat of Norwood, which produced a markedly below-average swing to Labor at the election, has expanded south-eastwards to take Kensington from the safe Liberal seat of Bragg, cutting the Labor margin by a potentially significant 0.6 per cent. There is better news for Labor in Hartley, where Grace Portolesi defeated Liberal member Joe Scalzi last year. The aforementioned transfer at Paradise from Morialta has expanded the electorate’s Labor-voting northern end, while a part of the Liberal-voting southern end at Kensington Gardens will now be wasted for the Liberals in Bragg. The Gawler-based seat of Light, won for Labor at last year’s election by Tony Piccolo with a margin of 2.6 per cent, has been trimmed in three places due to population growth, adding 0.2 per cent to the Labor margin. The other significant marginals, Liberal-held Stuart and Labor-held Mawson, have respectively been changed very little and not at all.

These proposals will now go through a public consultation process, for which the deadline for submissions is 5pm on Monday, February 26.

UPDATE: Greg Kelton from The Advertiser’s take on this is that "Labor’s chances of staying in power at the 2010 state election have been bolstered by changes to electoral boundaries". Further, a "senior Labor source" is quoted describing the redistribution as "a disaster for the Liberals". This conclusion is reached mostly on the basis that Liberal MP Graham Gunn’s seat of Stuart has been made "even more marginal", and is thus "almost certain to go to Labor" when he takes his personal vote into retirement with him at the next election. This highlights a source of confusion that I had glossed over in the above post. Appendix 9 of the draft report tells us that these supposedly calamitous changes to Stuart affect a grand total of 33 voters, in Oodnadatta and William Creek. However, Appendix 11 tells us that the margin in Stuart has indeed been cut from 0.7 per cent to 0.4 per cent. Similarly, other seats that are mooted as being unchanged in Appendix 9 – Mawson, for example – are listed with altered margins two appendices later (Mawson having gone from 2.3 per cent to 2.7 per cent). Unless someone can explain this to me in the next few days, I will attempt to get an explanation from the State Electoral Office on Monday.

FURTHER UPDATE: Antony Green (who else?) has the answers in comments. It turns out that the commissioners must go so far as to project the electoral impact of population trends over the next three years in calculating a "fair" outcome (which in this case go against the grain of the last election, when the Liberal vote held up remarkably well in Stuart). So Kelton is wrong to say the redistribution has significantly harmed the Liberals in Stuart. Antony makes another point that occurred to me: this system punishes marginal seat holders who do their job well and build up a personal following by taking their gains away from them, the very popular Chloe Fox being a case in point.

Also from Greg Kelton comes an opinion piece reporting a "strong feeling among political observers" that "the time has come for a new system". This is a defensible proposition as far as it goes, but most of the assertions that follow are head-scratchers of one type or another. To deal with them in turn:

• The present system of redistributions following each election is "resulting in many MPs not living within their respective electorates or having to change addresses every three years". This sounds at best like an exaggeration. The current redistribution affects about 60,000 out of a little over 1 million voters, or 5.7 per cent of the total. On this basis, the likelihood is that two or three sitting members will be moved a very short distance out of the electorates they represent. If party rules make this a problem (there is no law demanding that MPs live in their own electorates), they should probably be relaxed.

• The "consensus" is that the Electoral Reform Society’s proposal for seven multi-member electorates chosen by proportional representation "would be much fairer". Coming from anyone other than The Advertiser, this assertion would not cause my eyebrows to raise quite so. But this is the paper which in November 2005 editorialised in favour of abolition of the upper house, saying those who believed in "checks and balances, particularly in the form of minor parties and independents" were suffering a "fundamental misunderstanding of the strength of our democratic system", having failed to notice that elections were held every four years. It now proposes that those checks and balances be duplicated in the other chamber.

• Under such a system, "boundaries would not have to be redrawn after each election". Why ever not? The capital’s share of the state’s total population will continue to grow, and that of remote areas will continue to decline. It would accordingly be necessary to redraw the boundaries of the proposed seven regions so equality of representation was maintained.

• "A Liberal voter who lives in Treasurer Kevin Foley’s electorate of Port Adelaide might as well not bother voting because he has no chance of getting a Liberal candidate up in the area. The same applies to a Labor voter in the safe eastern suburbs seat of Bragg". This is at best partly true, so long as those voters also have an upper house to elect. Furthermore, complacent, corrupt or incompetent members in safe seats can be dumped in favour of independents. The threat of this occurring gives members an incentive to observe minimum standards of performance, and parties to withdraw endorsement from those who fail to meet them.

• "The major parties oppose multi-member electorates because it would end the system of putting party loyalists into Parliament and it would give minor parties a much better chance of winning seats". South Australia’s upper house, which the aforementioned Advertiser editorial told us was "a haven for underperformers, union hacks and those gripped with the politics of self-delusion and self-importance", is elected from just such a system. In fairness though, the Electoral Reform Society model under discussion proposes rotating ballot papers that would avoid the problem of unloseable positions for party favourites at the top of the ticket, although Kelton neglects to explain this (presumably being mindful of the need to avoiding boring his readers senseless with technical minutiae of the type that is the Poll Bludger’s stock in trade). It would however create a more complex voting system and a sharp upturn in the informal vote.