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Why the ‘wrong’ party could win SA’s state election

South Australia has tried to ensure its electoral boundaries are fair to ensure the majority party wins government. But it does not always work out that way.

When South Australians go to the polls on March 15 they should be secure in the knowledge that their voting system promises “electoral fairness”, and that the party that wins a majority is the party that wins government. But that’s not what actually happens.

Electoral fairness” is laid out in section 83 of the state’s constitution, which requires that boundaries be redrawn after each election so “if candidates of a particular group attract more than 50% of the popular vote, they will be elected in sufficient numbers to enable a government to be formed”. This avoids the not uncommon spectacle of parties winning election from a minority of the two-party vote thanks to fortuitous results in marginal seats, as occurred at federal level to the Coalition’s advantage in 1998 and to Labor’s in 1990.

Or at least, that’s the theory. Section 83 hints at the actual reality of the situation by adding the words “as far as practicable” — which, as experience over five elections shows, really isn’t very far at all. Since the measure was introduced by a Labor government that was limping through a disastrous final term after winning the 1989 election off 48% two-party preferred, the “wrong” party has emerged victorious on two occasions out of five.

The difficulty is that electoral boundaries are an extremely blunt instrument for ensuring the majority party wins office, and they can only promise to deliver if the overall swing is precisely uniform. The last election in 2010 made a mockery of that assumption, with Labor copping huge but ultimately harmless double-digit swings throughout its Adelaide heartland, while fighting brilliantly successful rearguard actions where it mattered most.

The final score was a fairly comfortable Labor majority of 26 seats out of 47 off just 48.4% of the two-party vote.

So great was the gap between the theory and the reality that, this time around, the Electoral Districts Boundaries Commission jumped straight through the “as far as practicable” escape hatch and did not even attempt to give effect to the directive of Section 83, which under the circumstances would have required some highly creative map-making. It has instead contented itself with clipping Labor’s wings somewhat in its four most marginal seats, only one of which has moved all the way to the notional Liberal column.

Furthermore, as a new set of seat margins calculated by Antony Green indicates, it’s debatable whether the EDBC’s methods would have delivered on their theoretical premise even if Section 83 had been scrupulously observed.

The heart of the problem is that creating hypothetical margins for new boundaries from previous election results requires knowledge of how people voted in areas transferred from one electorate to another. The only available tool for doing so is results from polling booths located in or near the relevant areas, which is somewhat imprecise even in the best of circumstances and is being rendered even less satisfactory by the growing popularity of postal and pre-poll voting.

Whereas ordinary polling booth voting accounted for 88.5% of the total at the 1993 election, by 2010 it had fallen to 78.6%. That leaves something approaching a quarter of the vote that can’t be identified with a particular location in the electorate, an issue the South Australian Electoral Districts Boundaries Commission (EDBC)┬ádeals with in the crudest possible way.

Under the EDBC method, if 10% of an electorate’s voters are transferred to another seat, 10% of its non-polling booth total gets transferred as well, with no mind paid to the fact that this total says nothing about the peculiarities of the affected area.

By contrast, Green’s method makes appropriate adjustments to non-ordinary vote transfers. This causes him to calculate a Labor margin of 2.8% in the electorate of Light on Adelaide’s northern fringe, which has lost some territory in overwhelmingly Labor-voting outer suburbs. By the reckoning of the EDBC, the Labor margin is a more comfortable 4.2%.

Green’s margins suggest the uniform swing required to cost Labor its majority is 0.6%, whereas the EDBC has it at 1.5%. In other words, a system that supposedly enshrines electoral fairness has the Liberals shooting for either 52.2% or 53.1% merely to reduce the other side to a minority.

Assuming the three sitting independents are re-elected, the target facing the Liberals for majority government is a daunting 54.2% on Green’s numbers, or 54.3% on the EDBC’s. But that, of course, assumes an alternative reality in which swings are perfectly uniform. As history shows, the reality for the Liberals could be quite a lot better — or worse.

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  • 1
    susan winstanley
    Posted Friday, 24 January 2014 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

    Yes, the “electoral fairness” test for SA redistributions is rubbish and many electoral experts said so at the time, when Andy Becker was SA State Electoral Commissioner. You will recall he was then appointed AEC Electoral Commissioner by the Howard Govt. Nick Minchin really liked his work…

  • 2
    Steve777
    Posted Friday, 24 January 2014 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

    A system if single- member electorates will always have this as a potential problem, no matter how fairly the boundaries are drawn.

    I’ve always favoured proportional representation or MMP. It would mean that most parliaments would be ‘hung’ and horse trading would be required to set up a government and get legislation passed, but NZ and European polities make it work. It would be a parliament that functions as designed. It would be better and fairer than the current ‘winner take all’ setup we have now.

  • 3
    CML
    Posted Friday, 24 January 2014 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

    I thought there had to be roughly the same number of voters in each electorate here in SA, and that removing or adding ‘booths’ on the fringes of electorates was the only way this could be achieved.
    Not sure what you want William. Should we adopt the American Republican Govenor’s little trick of hiving off just those areas where the Republican vote won’t matter, and then adding them to the next county where they hope to gain a majority. Each electorate looks like an abstract painting, with all the machinations that go on to ‘fix’ the system.
    If the current movements favour the Labor Party, as you suggest, doesn’t that mean that there is a greater concentration of Labor voters in these important seats? And that the Liberal vote is very high in a number of rural and high-income areas in the city? As a citizen of SA, that is how it looks to me. Bad luck for those ‘born to rule’, wouldn’t you say?

  • 4
    Unitary State
    Posted Saturday, 25 January 2014 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

    In all honestly, I reckon there will be actually be a swing back to Labor this time. The swing last time was highly unusual and I would expect a slight correction this time at the very least. Furthermore, Tony Abbott is a growing drain on the state Liberal vote and the trend is certainly running against them.

    A very important seat to watch is the seat of Adelaide. Its still a long stretch to say David O’Loughlin may win the seat however. I hope he does, he sounds like a man that has much to offer. I like the way he is so blunt about so many things. He rightly advocates for direct funding of local government by the federal government as should be recognised in the constitution. He also has a grasp on national affairs by criticising Howard and praising Keating regarding the anti-intellectual bogan’s black hole this country has become. I take my hat off to him. If David wins, that all but rules out any prospect of the Liberals winning a majority.

    As things stand now with just 7 weeks to go to the election, the result would perhaps be about 23 seats to Labor and anything in between 20-24 seats to the Liberals depending on how the Independents hold up. But in such an environment now where the combined primary votes for major parties is declining and typically under 80%, it would be a surprise for any of them to lose. In any case, I read an article saying some of the independents were peeved of with the Liberals regarding their strategy and increasingly unlikely to support them in a hung parliament.

    The state Liberals have thrown a golden opportunity right in the bin out of sheer political incompetence. A government which was dying of old age has been giving sufficient breathing space to replenish its own ranks and renew itself with new policies being announced last year. Out of the 12 or 13 cabinet members in government, only Jay himself is a member of the original Rann cabinet from 2002. When all this was occurring, the Liberals were off the wheel and absent from most headlines.

  • 5
    Elvis
    Posted Saturday, 25 January 2014 at 10:37 pm | Permalink

    I’m with Steve on MMP.
    Or are we afraid of truer democratic representation?

  • 6
    peterh_oz
    Posted Monday, 27 January 2014 at 7:46 pm | Permalink

    Sounds like its time for Proportional Representation, as we have in the Senate (and NZ has). Win 48% of the vote, get 48% of the seats. The 2 major parties will never allow it though, cos smaller parties would suddenly have a small voice.

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