SA 2014 – boundary issues

14

South Australia’s election produced a result that has sparked a lot of interest: despite the Liberal Party winning a majority of the two-party-preferred vote (and by even more than in 2010), the Liberal Party has won less seats than the ALP, and we appear to have narrowly avoided the Labor government holding an outright majority.

It’s not an uncommon outcome, in South Australia and elsewhere in the country. The ALP has formed government in South Australia despite losing the statewide vote three times in the last 25 years: in 1989, 2002 and 2010, and in two of those cases the ALP won an overall majority.

In federal politics, the 1990 and 1998 elections both saw the sitting government maintain power despite losing the vote (Labor in 1990, and the Coalition in 1998).

Following Saturday night’s result, multiple Liberal figures have come out to complain about the outcome and to vaguely criticize our existing electoral system which allows such an ‘unfair’ result.

Tony Abbott described South Australia’s election laws as ‘extraordinary’, ignoring the fact that Saturday’s outcome could just as easily happen under federal electoral law.

South Australia already attempted to remedy the ‘unfair result’ problem following the 1989 election result. After a history of Liberal governments holding on despite majority Labor votes thanks to severe rural malapportionments, the Bannon Labor government, with support from the Liberal Party, amended the Constitution to require that electoral boundaries be drawn as to be ‘fair’.

At each boundary redistribution after each election, the Electoral District Boundaries Commission is required to take into account the political make-up of each district, and draw boundaries that ensure that a majority of votes results in that party winning a majority of seats.

Unfortunately, that approach simply doesn’t work. Firstly, it is necessary to assign independent seats as either ‘Labor’ or ‘Liberal’ (an approach that wouldn’t have worked with Lyne and New England in 2010). Secondly, it assumes that swings are uniform, which they never are. The 2010 pre-election pendulum would have given the Liberal Party a majority of seats if the swing was uniform, but Labor suffered the biggest swings in safe seats while holding on in marginal seats.

Thirdly, the ‘fairness’ requirement had the potential to punish more effective MPs by making more severe changes to seats that bigger swings, while MPs who gained less of a swing get to hold on to more of their seat.

After the 2010 election, the Commissioners threw up their hands, and gave it up. They argued that the result was not due to unfair boundaries, but due to differences in campaigning, and made relatively mild changes to boundaries.

Attempting to create a ‘fair’ system out of the system of single-member electorates that we use to elect the House of Representatives and all mainland states’ lower houses is a fools’ errand. By its very nature, single-member electorates aren’t fair and don’t produce a fair result in terms of the number of seats won by each party.

The reason Labor has benefited in South Australia is not due to a ‘gerrymander’ or any kind of structural unfairness, despite Alexander Downer’s vaguely menacing implications. It’s South Australia’s people, and geography, that have the impact.

Labor won nine seats on Saturday by margins of more than 10%. The Liberal Party won thirteen. Labor didn’t win a single seat by a margin of more than 20%, while the Liberal Party won three. Meanwhile Labor won ten seats by margins of less than 6% while the Liberal Party won only five by such small margins (including Mitchell, which is still in doubt).

Liberal voters tend to be more tightly concentrated in affluent suburbs and rural parts of South Australia, while Labor’s voters are more evenly spread through more diverse suburbs that dominate most of South Australia’s marginal seats.

The same phenomenom has been experienced in New South Wales, which was largely considered to be a ‘natural Labor state’ because Labor voters tended to be spread more evenly through the Sydney suburbs while the Coalition racked up huge margins on the north shore and in rural areas.

We also don’t know how much campaigns, and voting patterns, are influenced by the electoral system we have. After the Coalition won the 1998 election despite losing the national vote, Liberal director Lynton Crosby pointed out that the Liberal Party may have run a different campaign if the goal was to win a majority of the vote.

If you want a fair system, there is only one answer: proportional representation. An electoral system like the Tasmanian-style Hare-Clark, New Zealand-style MMP or European-style party list would ensure that parties won the number of seats they are entitled to.

The reason that neither major party will consider these options is because, while it would ensure they would win their fair share, it would massively reduce the amount of time each party spends running a one-party majority government, and would bring in a lot more diverse voices into the Parliament.

Well you can’t have your cake and eat it too. You can either have a ‘fair’ system, or a system that ensures major party domination and majority government (most of the time).

It’s unclear what Liberals like Abbott, Downer and Hamilton-Smith are proposing as the solution to their problem. Downer mentions moving towards Tasmanian-style proportional representation, which South Australia and New South Wales used in the early part of the 20th Century.

Another commentator (whose identity appears to be lost thanks to the Advertiser’s shoddy editing) proposes moving towards optional preferential voting or first-past-the-post. Both systems would have favoured the Liberal Party, due to the high Greens vote and the lack of a significant right-wing force in the House of Assembly due to the weak state of the Nationals in the state.

Yet either of those options wouldn’t make the system fairer – they would tilt it towards the Liberal Party in the short term while allowing for even more distorted outcomes in the long-term. As the Labor governments who introduced OPV in New South Wales and Queensland in the early 1990s could tell the SA Liberals of today, it’s unwise to design an electoral system that is biased towards your side in the short term: because in the long term you don’t know who that bias may effect.

Liked it? Take a second to support the Tally Room on Patreon!

14 COMMENTS

  1. Once again we have to put up with hearing the Libs whinge about the ‘popular vote’. Except I don’t hear a single one of them mention that on the basis of the popular vote, the Greens would be on track to winning 4 lower house seats in South Australia. Wish they’d just get over their ‘born to rule’ sense of entitlement and actually start working for the people.

  2. It’s a pretty pathetic shot by the SA Libs. Fact is, and they know this, the electoral system in Australia is decided by seats, not by a statewide popular vote, and parties (at least Labor in SA anyway!) campaign accordingly.

    There’s not much point in Labor campaigning heavily in Mount Gambier or Kangaroo Island, so they don’t, they focus their resources on marginal seats, because that’s how the electoral system works. Of course, if it was changed to be just one big state-wide vote with lists of candidates, Labor would change it’s approach and probably close the gap in the ultra-safe Liberal seats.

    The system is only unfair if one side isn’t aware of what the system is, which clearly isn’t the case.

    Sore losers is all.

  3. Well you can’t have your cake and eat it too. You can either have a ‘fair’ system, or a system that ensures major party domination and majority government (most of the time).

    Well said – this really is the nub of the issue. Current whining amounts to “this rigged system is not fairly rigged”.

  4. As a very conservative person (I’d vote FF/CDP/LDP/some other minor right wing that isn’t ON/Rise Up if Turnbull was Liberal leader), I can say the poor Liberal result is down to two things:

    1. Poor marginal seat campaigns, also, ineffective campaigns against independents – Bob Such isn’t going anywhere, the Liberals shouldn’t bother winning back Fisher until he retires. Same with Brock in Frome. Pegler in Mount Gambier was only a freshman MP, so I can see why they targeted his seat. I don’t know Pegler’s popularity as an MP, but Mt. Gambier should have been a secondary campaign to that of Ashford/Elder/Newland/Colton etc.

    2. Factional wars – I’m not entirely sure of the reasons behind Redmond’s replacement as leader by Marshall, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was the old SA Liberal factional warfare again, like what happened to Brown back in ’96 when he was replaced by Olsen.

  5. In terms of (TPP) proportionality the SA election did pretty well. Labor looks like getting 22 or 23 seats, which is 47-49% of the seats (compared to around 48% of the TPP) vote. The problem is that everyone is expects completely disproportionate outcomes from single member electorates (and that is what usually happens). Once you count the independents the TPP is actually about as close to proportional as you could get.

    It always amazes me that in elections where the result is 54-46 TPP are invariably described as a “landslide”. If those proportions happened in any other aspect of life most people would describe it as extremely close (if not pure chance).

    Also, isn’t the advantage of single member electorates supposed to be that is forces parties to the “centre”, makes parties appeal to all voters and prevents favouritism of some groups. It would be easy to massively porkbarrel some seats and get almost all the votes there, but single member electorates are supposed to stop that. If you can’t win a wide variety of voters across many seats you aren’t doing what the electoral system was ostensibly designed for.

    As everyone else has said here, it would be better if people actually understood the electoral system and why it exists. That said, I agree that multi-member electorates or MMP are the way to go (in general not just for SA).

  6. as a kiwi , soon to be returning home after 9 years in Australia, i’m certainly looking forward to taking part in a fair election under MMP

  7. Also, isn’t the advantage of single member electorates supposed to be that is forces parties to the “centre”, makes parties appeal to all voters and prevents favouritism of some groups.

    You’re assuming that marginal seats are full of centrist voters. When in fact all that’s needed for a seat to be marginal is a balanced number of voters from each side.

    It would be easy to massively porkbarrel some seats and get almost all the votes there, but single member electorates are supposed to stop that.

    That’s actually what a single member system encourages, by privileging competitive electorates above non-competitive ones.

    If you can’t win a wide variety of voters across many seats you aren’t doing what the electoral system was ostensibly designed for.

    Narrowing the playing field down to a handful of key marginal seats doesn’t provide for a “wide variety of voters”, it does exactly the opposite.

    I think you’re making some very heroic (and unjustifiable) assumptions about why the single member system exists. Surely it’s more simple than that: it’s a very long-standing and very straightforward way of electing a parliament.

  8. Independent member for Frome, Geoff Brock, has taken a ministry in return for supporting a Labor minority government.

    The Labor administration really needs to take the electoral reform bull by the horns – although the status quo favours Labor, by leading the debate they’ll be able to institute a decent system like MMP, rather than leaving it to the next Liberal government and ending up with an abomination like FPTP.

  9. David,
    I wasn’t trying to say that single member electorates actually achieve those things (hence the quotation marks and saying supposed to and ostensibly). I was trying to suggest those are the reasons politicians and commentators usually use to justify why they support single member electorates rather than proportional representation.

    I agree with you that all those arguments are completely unfounded (and essentially meaningless most of the time).

  10. To put a bit of context into this, Labor has dined out in SA on assertions that the Playford rural weighting was “unfair” to them in the 50’s and 60s. Dean Jaensch, a prominent politics academic and talking head in SA produced estimates in the early 70s that suggested that in up to a half dozen elections, Labor was “robbed” by this system. More recent estimates suggest that this occurred once, or maybe 3, times (depending on how you treat the independent speaker in the 1962-65 and 68-70 Parliaments – a right-leaning ex Labour member).

    The work of Dunstan and Jaensch brought about the abolition of the rural weighting – which electorally benefited urban areas. In parliament, this principally benefited the urban-based Liberals, who had been a minor electoral force from the mid-1950s, holed up in 2 urban seats (the urban Liberals had been much more competitive from the 30s through to the early 50s, and had been a dominant part of the original formation of a Liberal Country League). By 1979, the first time the Liberals won government on the reformed system, a majority of their members sat for metro seats.

    While Labor won a high proportion of metropolitan seats, they were wiped out in what had been quite safe pocket seats based in rural towns, with a small net advantage.

    To put this into some more perspective, the Libs have been ahead in 2pp terms in 1975, 1989, 2002, 2010 and now 2014 without forming government: I think that is something more than the basis for a whinge.

  11. I can absolutely see why the libs would be annoyed. 53/47 should be a winning 2PP but at the end of the day, they knew what they had to do to win this election. They would have easily won if they put more effort into taking Edler then they did in Frome. Of course the 2PP is going to favour a party if the other doesn’t really campaign in a seat. Frome recored a majority of just over 1.5 at the by-election. Why the hell would labor try and maintain its vote when they have to defend seats they actually hold. labor gets how the electoral system in SA works. If you wanna whinge about libs recording more a higher vote, look at the legeslative council thats why its there. But the libs were just pathetic this election and Marshall should go he had the most envious pendulum of any opposition leader. Also all the whingers, labor recored a majority of the 2PP vote in Tasmania federally yet only won 1 seat whereas the libs picked up 3….don’t recall labor whinging and demanding the boundries be redrawn so they can win more seats. Next time SA libs, actually work for it don’t get cocky

  12. As Geoff Brock pointed out, the electoral system is based on how many seats you win, not how many votes you win. Everybody knows that, that’s been how our single-member electoral systems have been conceived since the days before modern political parties existed. Our electoral systems in Australia are not designed for voters to directly elect a government, they are designed to elect MPs from whom a government is formed that can command the confidence of the majority of MPs.

    If you want a parliament that reflects the vote share each party receives, then you go with a form of PR. Tasmanians seem to be happy with multi-member electorates. Their politicians whinge a lot about how awful minority governments are, but they don’t seem to call for changing the electoral system. If you prefer to keep a stronger component of local representation, then a NZ-style MMP model might be the way to go instead.

    If you actually want voters to explicitly elect who they want to be in government, then maybe you need to go for a presidential-type system, and have a separate direct election for Premier, who could then choose a Cabinet that would need to have the confidence of the parliament. That might create a range of other problems, but that’s a logical way to give voters a straight choice if they wanted Weatherall or Marshall to be Premier.

    If you want the fairest results, PR is the practical way to go.

    SA has it’s own unique circumstances since its population is so largely concentrated in Adelaide, but there’s ultimately no way you can have a system based on individual electorates that guarantees the state-wide seat share reflects the state-wide vote share. It’s inherently contradictory.

  13. If you actually want voters to explicitly elect who they want to be in government, then maybe you need to go for a presidential-type system, and have a separate direct election for Premier, who could then choose a Cabinet that would need to have the confidence of the parliament.

    That would be fun to watch in a SA context. Nick Xenophon would very likely run for premier under such a system, with a decent chance of winning. I wonder what a Xenophon cabinet would look like.

Comments are closed.