How should we be naming our federal seats?

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Australian federal electorates follow a fairly unique naming convention. Australian state seats are usually named after geographic locations, which is also common for national electorates in Canada, the UK and New Zealand, while electoral districts in the United States are generally given numerical names.

The majority of Australian federal electorates are named after prominent individual Australians, as a way of honouring those people. 113 out of 150 seats in the current parliament are named after people, while 37 are named after geographic features.

The AEC is usually hesitant to rename seats, and their guidelines prioritise maintaining existing seat names. Yet seats do change from time to time: states gain additional seats, population shifts within a state sometimes require a seat to be abolished, and there is pretty much a hard-and-fast rule that former prime ministers are honoured with a seat as soon as possible after their death.

Because of this practice, most seat names are those that were named in the first half of last century:

43 seats are those created for the first parliaments. 35 seats have survived since 1901, while eight other seats are the same as when they were created in Tasmania and South Australia in 1903 (those states did not use single-member electorates in 1901).

There were spikes in seat names in 1949 and 1984, when the parliament was expanded. More than two thirds of electorates were named in these three peak periods.

Thus it’s not surprising to discover a strong bias towards naming seats after white men. This partly reflects the era in which seat names were coined, but also reflects how men were much more likely to qualify as someone who had “rendered outstanding service to their country” in an era where women didn’t get the same opportunities.

After the fold I will run through why this has happened, and how the AEC isn’t making anywhere near enough progress towards honouring a more diverse cross-section of Australians. You can also download the dataset I used to conduct this analysis.

I count fifteen seats named after early explorers (all men) and eight named after British governors of Australian colonies (it was nine until Denison was renamed in the recent redistribution). There’s also fifteen seats named after politicians from the Federation era, all of whom are men. Not to mention the 21 former prime ministers who have seats named after them (which will increase to 22 with the new seat of Fraser in 2019).

All of this has contributed to a severe imbalance in who has been honoured with a seat name:

Almost six times as many seats are named after men as women. While there are fourteen indigenous seat names which refer to geography (plus Eden-Monaro, which is a mix), there are only five seats named after indigenous men. I may be wrong, but I don’t believe any seat is named after a person who is of an origin other than Aboriginal or British.

So considering this imbalance, what should we be doing to address it? There certainly has been a gradual shift towards naming seats after women, but it hasn’t come close to parity. This following graph is the same as above, but it breaks down seat names based on the gender of the person being honoured:

The original federation seat names have a strong bias in favour of naming seats after geographic features. 70% of seats named after a geographic feature date back to 1901.

There was a massive surge of seats named after men in 1949, and we also saw two seats named after women that year. Three other women were honoured with seats in 1974, 1996 and 2010, with ten being honoured when the parliament expanded in 1984 (but alongside fourteen men).

Even if roughly half of new seat names were named after women, we wouldn’t come close to parity without a massive expansion in the size of the House of Representatives.

The record has been quite dismal over the last two decades. 12 new seats have been named since 2001. Nine have been named after men, two have been named after families (Burt and Durack – Burt is entirely named after men, it’s not clear if Durack covers any women). Only one seat (Wright) was named after a woman.

But we are due for a big rush of new seat names in 2019. One has already been locked in: Denison (named after an early governor of Tasmania) has been renamed Clark after a Federation-era Tasmanian politician.

Two new seats were created in last week’s draft boundaries for Victoria and the ACT, but we also saw four other seats proposed to have their names changed. Three of these seats were previously named after geographic features.

When you add together these seven new names or name changes, only two of them would be named after women, with four named after men. The proposed seat of Nicholls would be named after both Doug and Gladys Nicholls.

So if these proposals were adopted, the gender balance would shift from 94-15 to 97-17 – pretty much no change.

What we name seats isn’t the biggest deal, but it is one of the way that we honour prominent Australians, and I think it’s a real problem that the vast majority of these seats are named after white men (particularly with such a bias towards 19th century figures).

All of the men proposed to have seats named after them are worthy people to consider – Andrew Inglis Clark, John Monash, Charles Bean, and of course Malcolm Fraser. But I’m sure there are a bunch of other people who would contribute more to us having a diverse range of people given this honour. I would like to see the AEC, and those making submissions, to think a bit more outside the box when considering how to name seats.

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14 COMMENTS

  1. Great idea Ben! The AEC just needs good guidelines, eg 50/50 men and women, plus percentages for indigenous & other mixes in our population, and geographics.Will share your excellent article and get the conversation out there.

  2. I think that British governors should no longer be named. Yes, they played a role, but they were not Australian. In fact all governors should fall under this category unless they have performed some other service.

    Also, only PM’s that have won an election should qualify.

  3. Just a slight correction – at the last Queensland state redistribution in 2017 the ECQ broke with long-standing tradition and named a number of electorates after individual and not geographic features. Since there was no forewarning that this would be occurring, there was insufficient scrutiny of the suitability of some of the names.

    Fortunately there were no changes in the Queensland federal redistribution. Although it is a Federation seat, I wouldn’t be unhappy to see Wide Bay renamed to something less bland.

    One of the reasons for the gender imbalance is that the AEC requires nominees to be deceased before considering them in electorate names. Consequently we’re only up to nominees who were in their prime before the 1960’s.

    Because former Prime Ministers get precedence, we will be waiting a while until we have a seat named after our first female PM. I look forward to the new seats of Hawke, Keating, Rudd and Gillard being created.

  4. In my area I have (Ida) Goldstein electorate next door and now (Annie) MacNamara electorate were I live; both women.

    I like the Aboriginal names but we have just lost one replaced with Cox.

    If we continue to name electorates after deceased PM’s we will soon run out of electorates to use this century if PM’s continue to come and go more rapidly as many of the last ones have – Keating, Rudd, Gillard, Abbott, Turnbull and probably short lived Shorten later on too.

    Place names can be messy as locally we have Albert Park District, Albert Park suburb, Albert Park Reserve (park, lake and F1-GP track) and until 10 years ago Albert Park Ward in Port Phillip Council however it was mostly in Middle Park.

  5. The geographic naming of electorates is a complicated issue.

    For Commonwealth electorates, they have to be fairly broad regional names because of electorate size.

    Their mobile nature makes the names subject to loosing their relevance and/or misleading people as to what electorate they are in.

    However, naming seats after people is a bit abstract, especially when those people were from different parts of the state to their seat, such as the tradition of giving recently deceased PMs the names of seats in areas held by the other side of politics (a tradition proposed to be continued by the proposed new seat of Fraser).

  6. I’d prefer we didn’t name electorates after people. Firstly it is pretty abstract and makes it hard for voters to identify with their electorate and who their local MP is (although all the alternatives aren’t necessarily much better in that regard). But I think the increasingly evident reason is that using it as a way of honouring prominent people can be problematic, as attitudes and perceptions towards people can change over time and can be contested. That’s before we talk about the inevitably contested legacies of politicians, especially former PMs. If you consider the discussion around figures such as Batman, and others from the colonial period, these are now increasingly recognised as problematic choices of people to be ‘honouring’ with electorate names.

    I don’t think it’s simple enough to say there’s just a few bad choices and if we weed them out then we can pick a set of people that everyone can agree should be honoured, and we can be confident future generations will continue to see them that way. Humans are naturally imperfect, and whilst in most cases most can agree that we are acknowledging people who have made some meritorious contributions to Australia, it’s also hard to avoid the fact that there’ll be some figures who some people will take issue with due to some other aspect of their lives. Batman is probably an easy one to justify renaming, but figures like Macquarie, Bean, or Calwell – champion of the White Australia policy, are examples of where it can start to get more debatable. And then there are not just questions about gender imbalance, but obviously further questions that will keep being raised about diversity. I’m not really convinced that we need to set up the potential for ongoing ‘culture war’ debates over who we do and don’t name electorates after.

    Having said that, I’m not convinced the alternatives are clearly superior. I think geographic naming, in theory at least, would be best, but is incredibly difficult depending on how specific you want the names to be to avoid confusion. (Many of our existing geographic names are misplaced or imprecise anyway though). I’ve been playing around this morning with assigning a geographic name to every electorate, using a mix of the UK and Canadian styles of naming electorates, and there are plenty that are very difficult. I’ve got a few Canadian-style quadruple-barrelled names, and even then parts of the electorate that aren’t covered by the name!

    So maybe numbering in practice is easiest, even though it means probably the least ability for voters to identify with an electorate.

    Or we do find some guideline for naming after people that somehow does avoid present or future arguments.

  7. Interesting analysis.

    I would note that you could further look at the European Geographical names to see if the name was given on the basis of a male or female. For example, I think Adelaide was a queen, Sydney was a foreign/ colonial secretary and Gippsland is named after a male NSW Governor – Gipps. If you did this I think the vast majority of seats would have names with a male genesis.

    Also Lyons was a joint naming of PM Lyons and his better half – Enid.

    In any event better than naming after a number the US way of numbering congressional seats doesn’t mean much – not sure of the difference between California – 38 and California 4. Whereas, the seats of Sydney & Brisbane actually have some meaning.

  8. Ben. You are obviously succumbing to the continual pressure from the left wing in upending long standing traditions to achieve what? To live in an electorate named for some Australian such as my electorate of Greenway means absolutely nothing to people going about their lives until an election comes around. I have not seen protestors vehemently whinging about the electorate name, even the normal rent a crowd for SSM, Gender fluidity etc. It is a null issue. Except for yourself and the few commentators above, no one really cares. The naming of electorates is to give a described area some identity for no other purpose than to differentiate one from the other. I find your analysis of electoral matters interesting but this matter is not worth any discussion.

  9. You’re welcome not to read it then Blobfish! I did say that it wasn’t a very important matter but I think it’s worth being aware of this when choosing new seat names (which is happening right now).

  10. I’ve formed the opinion that geographic names are superior. Just look at how other countries do it. Names like Mid Derbyshire, Auckland Central, or Moose Jaw—Lake Centre—Lanigan are way more informative than Ohio’s 6th congressional district. (Indeed, electorates named in this manner turn out to be a good way to teach geography to us political obsessives.)

    The main knock against geographic names is that any boundary change can force of change of name. But I don’t know that this is such a bad thing; a significant boundary change can produce a very different electorate.

    Though as others have said, given how large the electorates can be generic names do make a certain amount of sense in the federal sphere.

    I would just like to see the various electoral commissions pick a strategy and stick to it. Most states use geographic names, but always with a few exceptions.

    NSW uses geographic names, but makes an exception for Heffron and Oxley. (Why not Mascot and Kempsey?)

    At the last state redistribution, Queensland dropped readily identifiable names like Cleveland and Sunnybank for no good reason. Additionally a handful of obscure names for new seats were introduced when superior geographic alternatives were available. (Western Australia proposed to do the same thing but sanity prevailed.)

    South Australia uses mostly non-geographic names, but retains exceptions like Cheltenham and Mount Gambier. They’ve also gone back and forth on their approach. West Torrens was renamed Peake, only to later revert to West Torrens.

    The number of name changes in the Victorian proposal was surprising, but under the current guidelines it makes sense for the AEC to phase out the geographic names.

  11. Nick says: I don’t think it’s simple enough to say there’s just a few bad choices and if we weed them out then we can pick a set of people that everyone can agree should be honoured, and we can be confident future generations will continue to see them that way. Humans are naturally imperfect, and whilst in most cases most can agree that we are acknowledging people who have made some meritorious contributions to Australia, it’s also hard to avoid the fact that there’ll be some figures who some people will take issue with due to some other aspect of their lives.

    The core of this argument: Since we can’t make a perfect decision of this sort, we shouldn’t try at all. The alternative is that we accept geographical names that change with redistributions.

    But nothing says seat names have to be eternal. It’s a good thing that we are renaming McMillan. I think it’s perfectly fine for us to say “we believe this person should be honored”, and for future generations to say “that person should not be honored”. Each is a true a reflection of a society at a time. That’s all we can do.

    Moreover, avoid these honors because there aren’t enough for women will not improve the proportion of honorifics going to women. Go for a walk in your city. How many statues are there of women? None, because since we started honoring women we stopped building statues. At least these names are maintained. Some of the time we create new ones, and we can give a higher proportion of these to women than previous generations. And future generations can do better than we do.

    Geographic names don’t offer a huge benefit. I’m going to have to look up the district I’m in regardless, because the borders change. I might have every reason to believe I’m in Kooyong, but if Kooyong moves south that changes. And is it obvious that someone who lives in Queenscliff should live in a division named after a lake two hours drive away?

    And lastly, I quite like personal names, because it helps you know at a glance if this is federal or state. If I lived in the the state seat of Narre Warren and the federal seat of Hallam, I’m going to eternally confuse them.

    (I’m just going to assume no-one seriously proposes numbers. Another option could be to name them after e.g. animals or just names without honorific significance like cyclones. I have no strong feelings against that kind of a proposal.)

  12. I’ve always been in favour of a strict delineation between state division names (geographical) and federal ones (honouring people), but recent moves by the states suggest that might be a thing of the past. To me it makes sense to name federal divisions after people because they are the ones most people are going to know, whereas most people won’t know their state division so the geographical names help. Plus the federal divisions being geographically larger means it would be harder to name them accurately anyway – all one has to do is look at the hideous names Canadian ridings have to know that. Numbers are even worse. I don’t see anything wrong with the fact that, as attitudes change, some names may need to change as well – that strikes me as healthy and not at all a downside of personal names for divisions.

    I’m encouraged to see some more erosion of Federation geographical names here, even if the new names don’t do much for gender or ethnic balance. If I had my way I’d re-name every division with a geographical name, or one honouring a non-Australian (Franklin etc.), for a woman and/or person of colour, but it’s not like that will ever happen.

  13. It occurs to me also that geographical names will have biases too. It will certainly have a bias towards men. Victoria, Queensland, Adelaide, Coburg and Brunswick were named after woman, but all of them royals. How many places are named for woman who were significant in the life of the place? Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, Darwin, Bendigo, Churchill, Fawkner, Pascoe Vale – almost placenames whose origin I’m aware of which are named after non-royals are named for men. [I have no idea what the origin of the name Nathalia is, but I’m guessing it was named for a woman.] But I’ve never done any kind of study – I’m strongly biased towards placenames that relate to me somehow, or which I’ve noticed and are obvious.

    And even the aboriginal place names that exist don’t necessarily represent the aboriginal name of the place concerned. The word might be etymologically aboriginal but relate to something else entirely (e.g. the Yarra – its name is a relevant aboriginal word, but not the name of the river in any aboriginal language). Nicholls is etymologically European, but the people it identifies are indigenous. At least by naming things after people, we can make sure we have a fair and just connection to the indigenous communities that have existed over time according to our current best efforts, instead of solely freezing in place colonial attitudes and misunderstandings.

  14. In the far off future, I wonder what decision would be made when the number of deceased PMs for a particular state outstrips the number of available HoR seats in that state. Which former PM’s seat would then be the first to go?

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