Last month, Nationals MLC Ben Franklin announced that he would seek a parliamentary inquiry into the size of the western NSW electorates of Barwon and Murray, which cover a majority of the New South Wales land mass. Today, according to a tweet from the party’s account, the NSW Nationals passed a motion calling for smaller electorates in regional NSW.
It’s true that these electorates are huge, and are a challenge to represent, but this simply reflects the low populations living in these areas. While there are some variations in electoral boundaries which could make Barwon at the least slightly smaller, any legislative changes would likely require increasing the population contained within seats in Sydney and along the coast, unless the Nationals are considering a proposal to increase the size of the Legislative Assembly.
The proposal also ignores the fact that the Nationals actually benefit from our electoral system. In 2015, the Nationals polled about the same as the Greens, but won 17 seats to the Greens’ 3, due to their vote being concentrated in particular parts of the state.
Franklin ignores all the other conditions that can make it harder to represent an electorate, such as having a large number of residents who don’t speak English, many residents with problems needing support from their local MP, such as public housing issues. It’s a lot easier to measure the landmass a seat covers, but it doesn’t mean it is the only problem faced by MPs in representing their electorate. Yet we don’t discuss weighting electoral power based on any other type of disadvantage – it’s one person, one vote.
There is a long and ugly history in Australia of electoral laws being used to increase the voting power of rural voters at the expense of urban voters – in effect MPs represented land, not just people. In New South Wales at a state level, and in most other jurisdictions, different quotas were set in rural and urban areas, meaning that there were much smaller numbers of voters in a rural seat than in an urban seat.
This process of malapportionment had clear political impacts – while initially it favoured Labor in the early 20th century, since the Labor split over consciption during the First World War and the rise of the Country Party it has usually favoured the conservative side of politics, as conservative parties have tended to win more seats in country areas, and malapportionment meant these rural votes stretched further.
Malapportionment helped the Liberal Playford government in South Australia and Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s government in Queensland hold on despite falling far short of a majority of the vote (even after preferences) at a number of elections, and it also had effects across the country.
Thankfully malapportionment has now been almost entirely abolished, and now only remains in the Western Australian upper house.
While we can have sympathy for the difficulties for voters in remote parts of Australia in being represented, and communicating with their elected representative, this is not an excuse to dilute the electoral power of other voters.
Prior to the last redistribution, the Coalition state government changed the law to allow state electorates to deviate from the quota by up to 10% above or below, on the advice of the NSW Electoral Commission. There were fears at the time that this would be used to systematically draw Nationals electorates in Western NSW under quota, but this didn’t come to be.
The Liberal Party and the Greens largely recommended that seats be close to the same population. The ALP actually recommended that faster-growing seats (mainly in Sydney) be drawn well below-quota and slower-growing seats in Western NSW be drawn well above-quota. On the other hand, the Nationals recommended the seats experiencing below-average population growth should be drawn with significantly smaller populations.
At the time, I criticised this approach as an attempt to malapportion state electorates to effectively create a whole extra seat in Western NSW. Taking the NSWEC’s population estimates, the Nationals map would have resulted in 17 out of 93 seats being more than 5% above or below the quota by 2019. If another seven seats exceeded the 5% threshold by that point, it would be necessary to hold a redistribution four years early to deal with the massive imbalance.
On the other hand, Labor’s approach was more reasonable, effectively drawing seats which would ‘grow into’ the population quota over the eight-year period in which the boundaries would be used.
In the end the NSWEC erred more on the side of Labor’s proposal, and rejected the Nationals approach.
Following the release of the draft boundaries, the Nationals abandoned their overall approach, and accepted the boundaries drawn in Sydney and along the NSW coast, proposing a reshuffle of district boundaries in Western NSW to make Barwon substantially smaller. I don’t have a strong opinion about this proposal, but I would note that it would have resulted in Murray becoming substantially larger than it was drawn.
It seems from reading Franklin’s recent comments, and today’s decision by the NSW Nationals, that the party is proposing more than just reshuffling regional voters to make the biggest seats slightly smaller in terms of landmass, and making the other regional seats bigger to balance out the change.
A minor reshuffle of Barwon’s boundaries wouldn’t result in the combined area covered by Barwon and Murray being any smaller. Indeed, the equivalent seats covered about the same combined area prior to the last redistribution.
If you want to make all of the larger rural seats cover a smaller landmass, that means you need to give them a smaller population.
The NSWEC already has the power to draw smaller divisions in Western NSW, but in the recent redistribution recognised that these divisions are not only sparsely populated, but are becoming more so relative to the rest of the state, so any attempt to draw them under quota is likely to result in the seats becoming even more imbalanced over time. Even on current boundaries, it’s likely that these seats will be below-average by the 2019 election.
So the only way to use legislation to force smaller seats in Western NSW is to change legislation so that seats aren’t drawn to the same quota, with seats above a certain size not required to meet the quota, or by setting different quotas in different parts of the state.
Ultimately, democracy is about representing people, not land, and we need to find other ways to balance out the difficulties in communication and representation MPs experience when representing those large parts of the Australian landmass with small populations. This can include increased staffing, provision of extra offices and extra resources for travel and communication.
There is, however, another way to make large rural seats smaller without creating an imbalance in population between city and country: increase the number of seats in the Legislative Assembly.
The Legislative Assembly has only had 93 seats since 1999. Prior to that point, the Assembly had 109 seats in 1988, and 99 seats at every other election from 1973 to 1995. In that time, the New South Wales population has grown significantly, and it would be very reasonable for us to consider a significantly enlarged Assembly, which would allow for smaller rural seats, alongside an equivalent improvement in representation for urban voters.
This seems unlikely to happen, with voters rarely supporting an increase in the number of politicians – but these MPs and their staff are a relatively small cost in terms of the size of the NSW budget, and could significantly improve representation.
It’s about time we do something similar in the federal Parliament – the number of members in the House of Representatives has roughly doubled since the first Parliament in 1901 – increasing from 74 to 121 in 1949 and from 125 to 148 in 1984. But that’s a topic for another day.