Who do we name our seats after?


Federal redistributions are currently underway in three states. While the main focus is on the boundaries of the electorates, and the electoral implications of those boundaries, it’s worth also drawing some attention to the question of what we name those electorates.

Australia’s federal boundaries are unusual in that they are mostly named after people as an honour to prominent and prestigious people from the past. This is not very common in other countries – usually districts are either named after a local area (as in New Zealand, the UK or Canada) or are numbered within the state or province (as in the United States, Malaysia, the Philippines and many others). Even in Australian states, usually electorates are named after a suburb or town.

The question of who seats are named after came up in last Friday’s podcast, where Shane Easson and I discussed the ongoing redistribution process and some of the proposed names for NSW federal electorates.

In this post I’m going to look at trends for how seats are named, and differences between states, which gives some insights to what could potentially happen in this redistribution cycle.

In one sense, this topic can seem of minor importance. A name of an electorate doesn’t have electoral significance – there’s nothing to stop a seat named after a Liberal prime minister like Fraser or McMahon being won by a Labor member. But it is a particularly rare honour that our country hands out to figures of significance, and these decisions say something about what this country values.

Throughout the 20th century, the names of seats gradually changed. There were large expansions in the parliament in 1949 and 1984, and some states gradually lost seats. Even when a state didn’t lose seats, some old seat names were abolished. Throughout that century there was a tendency to move away from naming seats after place names and towards people, but the vast majority of those people are white men. In recent decades there has been more of an effort to name seats after Indigenous people and women, but the numbers are still quite paltry. There is also a significant difference between states.

Let’s start with the history.

The first federal electorates were drawn by the state parliaments in the four biggest states prior to the first federal election in 1901 (South Australia and Tasmania used an at-large statewide electorate for their first federal election, so their “federation” seats date back to 1903), and there was an attempt in New South Wales and Victoria to name many of their seats after Indigenous names. In New South Wales, the commissioners proposed to name all 26 seats using Indigenous words, but a backlash caused most of these seats to adopt a different name. Still, right from the beginning there were quite a few Indigenous place names used for federal electorates.

Of the 75 electorates used in 1903, 21 of them were named after Indigenous place names. A further 28 were named after place names of European origin, and just 26 were named after people (all men).

Naming seats after people, rather than places, became the default after 1901, but over the next half-century there just weren’t that many new seats to name. The number of seats apportioned to each state was changed only three times between 1906 and 1922, and then the seat count per state remained the same until 1949. New South Wales gained seats in 1906 and 1922, and Queensland gained a seat in 1913, and the Northern Territory electorate was created in 1922. Excluding the unimaginatively named “Northern Territory”, that’s just three freshly-created seats in almost half a century.

Yet 15 new names were created in the 1906, 1913 and 1922 redistributions, and another three at the 1934 and 1937 redistributions (which didn’t involve in changes in the seat count per state). Through this time, there were a net change of nine fewer seats named after places and nine more named after people. I say “people”, but at this point they were all named after men.

The 1949 parliamentary expansion almost entirely saw new seats named after people, mostly men, but also saw the first seat named after a woman (Chisholm), and two other seats were co-named after a man and a woman (Macarthur and Mackellar – although Dorothea Mackellar was still alive when the seat was created, so it’s not clear if the seat was later co-named after her).

These trends continued in coming decades – place names slowly becoming less popular, with more seats named after people, but mostly men. Tangney was created in 1974 as a second seat named after a woman.

The 1984 expansion created a lot more seats named after women but it also created a lot more seats named after men, and overall the balance remained severely lopsided. In the last four decades there have been fewer opportunities, but we’ve seen a slow increase in the number of seats named after women (or both men and women), mostly at the expense of seats named after place names.

But overall seats (co-)named after women make up 14.6% of the total, while seats solely named after men make up 63% of the total.

The other trend worth observing has been the use of Indigenous names (either names of people or place names) over the last 120 years. 28% of all seats were named after Indigenous place names in 1903. This number has declined in raw numbers and much more so as a proportion of the increased total, but not by as much as place names of non-Indigenous origin.

The first seat named after an Indigenous person was Bennelong, created in 1949. Bennelong was joined in 1984 by Jagajaga, named after the three Wurundjeri elders who supposedly signed the treaty with John Batman in 1835. Up until 1998, they were the only seats, named after people who had lived in the very earliest days of British settlement.

In the last 25 years, there has been an uptick in seats named after Indigenous people: singer Harold Blair in 1998, activist Vincent Lingiari in 2001, politician Neville Bonner in 2004, and then activist William Cooper and activists Doug and Gladys Nicholls in 2019. Note that there are no federal seats solely named after a woman.

It is also worth noting that while there are quite a few names of an Indigenous origin – either honouring an Indigenous person or using an Indigenous place name – but otherwise I believe every other person honoured with a name is of European ancestry.

On the podcast, Shane mentioned that he’s noticed a change in recent years, with Tom Rogers appointed as Electoral Commissioner in 2014 leading to a greater willingness to change seat names. The AEC has guidelines which are meant to set a direction for naming decisions, but some things appear to have changed. There has been less concern about maintaining federation names, and instead more of a priority given towards reducing the number of geographic names.

This next chart shows the number of new seat names introduced at each election, compared with the number of additional seats given to states (which is effectively the minimum number of new seat names to be created).

Generally there are 1-2 states which gain a seat at each election, although 2013 saw no changes in the seat count by state. Generally 1-3 seat names are created at each election, but 2019 stands out when eight new seat names were created.

What stands out about 2019? In short, it’s the redistribution cycle which saw the largest proportion of federal seats redistributed in the last decade. The 2019 redistribution affected 88 seats, with only New South Wales and Western Australia spared. Only the 1993 and 2010 cycles affected more seats – but 2025 is on track to meet the record of 2010, affecting 100 seats.

If the AEC is in the mood to change seat names, they’ll have plenty of chances. While they could get away with just one new seat name (in Western Australia), there will be some quite substantial changes in Victoria and NSW, and this could justify a number of seats to be abolished, not just one each. And that’s before you consider any decisions to rename seats which haven’t been radically changed.

At this point it’s worth mentioning the differences between the states. Some states have experienced far more redistributions than others, and thus probably have less potential for seats being renamed than others. In particular there is still more potential for seat renaming in NSW than in Victoria.

In the 2019 redistribution cycle, just three seats were renamed because of dramatic change: Bean was a new seat in the ACT, as was Fraser in Victoria. The seats of Port Adelaide and Wakefield were effectively merged, and instead of keeping either name they replaced both with “Spence”.

The other five new seat names didn’t involve a big change in boundaries: Batman became Cooper, Melbourne Ports became Macnamara, Murray became Nicholls, McMillan became Monash, and Denison became Clark. Two of those retired names were geographic descriptors: the other three referenced 19th century figures, two of them figures linked to massacres of Indigenous people, and the third named for a 19th century governor who only lived in Australia during his 15 years of official service before leaving.

If you look at the breakdown of current electorate names by state, there’s some clear differences.

Victoria and Queensland each have five seats named after women, but NSW is only equal with Western Australia and South Australia at two each, despite those other states having a much smaller number of seats.

If you look at the number of seat names of Indigenous origin, you can see the remnants of that original decision in 1901 to name seats after Indigenous places in NSW and Victoria, which are home to 14 out of 16 seats named after Indigenous places. There aren’t that many seats named after Indigenous people in any state, but NSW is still trailing the slightly smaller big states on this front.

Considering that 2019 precedent, it seems quite possible we could see some similar decisions in New South Wales in this cycle, replacing some names that seem less relevant in the 21st century with people who have made a more substantial contribution in a more recent era, and allowing for greater diversity of honourees.

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  1. I must admit I have always liked the UK electorate naming conventions with multiple towns/suburbs in the name.

    Imagine Melbourne being called ‘Cities of Melbourne and Yarra’, or Wills being ‘Brunswick Coburg & Glenroy’…..

  2. Canning is now co-named after Sadie Canning. I am hoping Yagan will get up for the new WA seat. There should be a seat named after an indigenous person in South Australia and Tasmania in the future.

  3. I much prefer what they do in the UK, US, and in most of parts of the world – either geographical descriptions or numbers. In Australia, people get riled up about who divisions are named after, and naturally the “culture war” finds its way into the conversation. Matters of names get tied up with matters of boundaries, where the abolition of a division is resisted on the basis that its name should not be retired. In the rest of the world, the boundaries are drawn, names (or numbers) are assigned without any drama, and that’s it.

  4. @ Nicholas
    i see your point the one reason i like having names for seat after people is that it is easy to do long term analysis on how demographics have changed, voting patters and population shifts at a wider level. In the US the just randomly number seats so Maryland’s 3rd congressional district could be in a completely different part of the state after redistricting so much harder to do analysis.

  5. There has been an interesting shift in the naming of seats after prominent individuals (of course there will be a preponderance of men because like it or not most decision makers and political actors have been male until recent times). Not until 1922 (Barton, Reid, Forrest) were seats named after Federation statesmen and there was an emphasis on explorers and early administrators. In 1948 the Chifley Government insisted on such political names as Curtin, Ryan and Higgins in place of other suggestions by Commissioners. Hopefully the remaining geographic names will gradually be replaced by the names of former Prime Ministers and others making a serious contribution to elected office.
    Outstanding indigenous Australians like Ken Wyatt should ultimately have seats named after them but not of course during their lifetimes. Since 1984 no seat has been named after a living person.

  6. I won’t end up making any submissions (I had a NSW one fully worked out but ran out of time to properly document it) but was going to suggest either Chang (after Victor Chang) or Kramer (after Dame Leonie Kramer) for a new division in NSW.

    (For what it’s worth, I was proposing abolition of North Sydney and Banks, with the new division drawing from parts of current Werriwa, Fowler and Hughes).

  7. Mackellar was always named after Dorothea Mackellar – not sure who the man you refer to is.
    In days of yore, they weren’t so strict about somebody being dead first – Bruce was created in 1955 but Stanley Bruce did not die until 1967.

  8. Would it so bad to name seats after geographical descriptions the way they do in NZ and the UK? If it makes “bits and pieces” seats more embarrassing in distributions, good.

  9. I thought Blair was named after former British PM Tony Blair?

    Anyway, I would personally favor seats being named after places rather than people, like most other countries like Canada, UK, NZ, etc.

  10. @daniel t we already do that in states. They would probably double up names. UK and NZ don’t have state parliament thpugh

  11. The big gripe I have with Australian electorate names is that they are not very indicative of the geographic locations. With 151 names, I often forget where exactly an electorate is. I at least know the state it’s in. If I were to think of a random locality or town or suburb, I may struggle to recall the electorate.

    I prefer electorates be named after regions or geographic features e.g. Sapphire Coast, Cape York, Barwon South West, or like in Canada or the UK’s urban areas with a city name and its location e.g. Gold Coast North, Melbourne West, Geelong Centre. This way it avoids a lot of doubling up with state electorate names.

    Naming electorates after people has the potential to stir up heated debate and be a subject of the culture wars. Add to that, many are named after major party politicians. If the AEC insists on naming them after people, I am favour of naming them after unsung heros who were pioneers in academia, medicine, science and technology, the arts and human rights or exploration. This would boost their profile and recognition. This includes many Nobel Prize winners and other award winners and “First person to…” or “First Australian to…”.

  12. One thing that’s unhelpful and potentially confusing is to use the same name for two totally different seats: eg Fraser, now used for a seat in Victoria, after having been for many years a seat in the ACT. Some other examples are Scullin and Cook.

  13. Of the seats that are named after a person, how many of those places are where that person lived?

    I don’t mind either personal names or geographic names – as long as it’s a meaningful name of some sort, and not a number. But, from an ideal point of view, if geographic names are geographically limited then personal names should have a similar limitation. If a seat was to be redistributed away from that person’s home area, then the seat should be renamed.

    From a more realistic point of view, the current seat names are already established, so the system for keeping those names or renaming them whenever appropriate is great.

  14. Peter, many of these historical figures (politicians and others) may not have had a true ‘home’ area. Some even moved states during their lifetime, for example Bob Hawke whilst representing Victoria and lived there for most of his life also spent some of his childhood in WA. Therefore, it is hard to identify where someone’s ‘home’ area is.

  15. Sooner of later there will be a names logjam in NSW – there are six living prime ministers – all will need a seat named after them at some stage. Should Berowra survive, Howard will be an obvious name as would Blaxland being renamed Keating. After that, it gets a tad difficult.

  16. @redistributed. four of whom wont die anythime soon. by the time they go we will most likely see an expansion to the parliament and many redistributions afterwards. tbh i reckon parramatt would be more suited to howard.

  17. There are more than enough seats named after geographic descriptions or pre Federation colonial figures that could become former PM seats. I would also hope by the time Abbott, Turnbull and Rudd pass away, we will have expanded the house.

  18. I like the ACT approach of indigenous words that also roughly correspond to the area

    Would like to see Werriwa return to being a geographically accurate name for a southern NSW seat (as several redistributions propose putting Goulburn and the Canberra Region in the same seat).

  19. the idea of naming places after people instead of places as it avoids the need to change the division name every redistribution.as population centres move and places move out of the division.
    @john doubtful it will ever happen theres currently a w division and over 200km between werriwa and lake george

  20. It is embarrassing that there is a single member Federal electorate in SA called Spence. As Catherine Helen Spence was one of the earliest supporters of proportional representation in Australia, her name needed to be kept for one of the first multi member electorates once the House of Representatives is elected by the quota preferential method of PR.

  21. There’s a dilemma when there are multiple ex-PMs and key figures who lived in or represented the same part of the country. Oftentimes, an electorate named after an ex-PM or other figure isn’t exactly located where they lived or represented. For example, Parkes doesn’t contain Henry Parkes’s hometown of Tenterfield. Fadden is on the Gold Coast yet his hometown was north of Brisbane.

  22. Um, Tenterfield was not Parkes’ home town. He was born in Warwickshire, and lived in Sydney before he became an MP. He mostly represented Sydney seats but switched to Tenterfield after losing East Sydney. He only represented Tenterfield for two years, then retired, then represented St Leonards for his last ten years in parliament. I doubt he spent much time there.

    But yes generally there isn’t much concern for locating the electorate in the area the person represented.

  23. There’s also the whole Tenterfield Oration that Parkes delivered in 1889, without which Australia may not have federated in the way it did.

    Regarding Fadden, he represented Darling Downs until 1949, then switched to McPherson after the expansion of the House of Representatives. I believe McPherson then covered much of the territory that the electorate of Fadden does in the present day, so in a way it’s an appropriate name for a Gold Coast seat, and he has more connection with that area than Frank Forde does with Logan.

    At their last redistribution, Queensland introduced many more seats named for people rather than localities. They did have the seat of Nicklin around for decades prior to this, which is the only seat I can think of that explicitly was named for a person. I wonder if in time we’ll see seats named for Bjelke-Peterson and Goss, to name but two deceased premiers of lengthy tenure.

  24. I keep thinking that we might be able to solve the prime minister problem by adopting a rule that we only honour prime ministers elected in Australia’s first century. So Keating and Howard will still get seats named after them, but none of the others. I don’t think people would take issue with such a rule. There’s very little love for any of Rudd, Gillard, Abbott, Turnbull, or Morrison, and Albanese doesn’t seem to be on track to be one of the greats.

  25. Frank Forde was PM for a week and he has an electorate named after him.

    What if hypothetically there were three or four ex-Prime Ministers from NT? I know it’s statistically unlikely given that NT has 2 of the 151 federal HoR seats. What if NT never gets enough people to have a third or fourth seat?

  26. These after all are just guidelines, the AEC would adjust them if we got close to any absurd scenario, but there’s also no hard-and-fast rule that a seat named after a PM is from the state they represent.

  27. Angas, by the time Rudd and the other contemporaries do pass away it might be in the middle of this century and who knows the parliament could have expanded to 200-300 seats by then

  28. Votante, I suspect parliament would be long expanded by then to meet the cube root rule I have been calling for. But if not, they will probably name a seat after a PM in the state they were born in (if they were born outside the NT but represented the NT)

    The only PM I can think of that was born in a different Australian state to the one he represented in Parliament is Bob Hawke who was born in South Australia.

  29. As there are 3 born overseas, of whom only 1 has a seat named after them currently I assume they would get a seat from the state they represented

  30. A bit of supplemental trivia. Although there seems to be a recent trend of renaming or creating a seat at the very next redistribution following a PM’s death, the seat of McMahon wasn’t created until 2009, 21 years and four redistributions after the passing of Sir William. In a similar vein, Chifley wasn’t created until 1968 (died 1951), Fisher in 1949 (died 1928), and Lyons not until 1984, although that particular seat was named for both Joe (died 1939) and Enid, and was created three years after Enid’s death. Although Menzies was not created until 1984, that was the first redistribution since his death in 1978.

  31. im not sure when that rule came into place tbh and prior to recent times im sure people could easily access data and submit it so easily so it was probably a little bit harder

  32. In reply to NQ View, there was less concern in earlier times to commemorate former PMs. The seat of Watson actually disappeared in 1968 and wasn’t revived until the 1990s.
    Tasmania of course will never have new seats so existing ones have been renamed: Darwin (a confusing name!) became Braddon in 1955, and Denison became Clark in 2016 – both honouring Federation statesmen. Where necessary nineteenth century Governors should be displaced by political achievers.

  33. I don’t mind pre-federation Governors, though I prefer geographic names as I mentioned earlier. I also prefer silent achievers and unsung heroes, rather than political figures if the AEC is going to rename or create electorates.

    Cook and Banks should be phased out sooner or later as neither lived in Australia permanently. All the other seats are named after people who lived here for decades. Cook and Banks already have a number of place names, geographical features, statues and public infrastructure that memorialise them.

  34. Actually Tasmania will gain seats if parliament were to expand to 300 or so. The rule for Tasmania is it can’t have less than 5 seats, but can have more. So if NT became a state, 5 seats would be required unless the constitution was amended.

    I think 7 or 8 seats for Tasmania would be fair.

  35. @Votante

    We also had a Prime Minister named Cook, so Cook can be named after him as well, as for Banks, I’m sure we can rename that after a former PM one day (perhaps Morrison or Abbott when one of them pass)

  36. @John, you’re right. The AEC says that Cook was named after Captain Cook, presumably because he landed in what is now that electorate. https://www.aec.gov.au/profiles/nsw/cook.htm. Either the AEC recognises the current elctorate is named after PM Joseph Cook or creates Cook somewhere in western Sydney.

    George Bass wasn’t a resident of Australia either but I guess the electorate Bass can remain as it is linked to the Bass Strait.

  37. The original seat of Cook in the 1900s was an inner suburban seat around Redfern(?). It was abolished in 1955 and the current Cook was created for the 1969 election far to the south of the original Cook. It is high time that this seat was dual-named to recognise the former PM (who like other short-term PMs was otherwise a very significant politician).

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