The Australian Electoral Commission determined in February this year that New South Wales will lose one of its 49 seats in the House of Representatives, with Queensland gaining another, bringing its delegation up to 30 seats. This process requires a state-wide redistribution in both states, the first step of this process concluded in the last two weeks, as the first round of suggested redistribution decisions were published by the AEC.

Submissions regarding the New South Wales redistribution were published on Monday. The vast majority of submissions come from residents of country seats (in this case, they mostly reside in Kay Hull’s seat of Riverina) begging the AEC to protect all of New South Wales’ country seats, in spite of the declining country population.

As well as a handful of submissions from local councils and other interested persons, the most interesting submissions come from the Labor, Liberal and National parties, who all present their own detailed submissions. All three parties provide submissions that propose a state-wide redrawing of boundaries, which fulfils the legal requirements, but subtly (or not so subtly) favour their own party’s interests.

Each party has presented differing proposals as to which seat should be abolished. The ALP proposes to abolish the south-west Sydney seat of Macarthur, currently held by Liberal MP Pat Farmer by a slim 0.6% margin. The Liberal Party proposes abolishing both the safe Liberal seat of Hume (centred on Bowral and Goulburn) and the Nationals seat of Riverina (centred on Wagga Wagga), with the two seats to be produced by the seat of Bradman, which would surely find favour with their former leader. The Nationals, who would surely be displeased with losing one of their four remaining NSW seats, instead propose the abolition of Banks, in southern Bankstown and Hurstville.

When you start comparing ALP and Liberal proposals for each seat side-by-side, you can see that the Liberal Party has chosen to keep most of their recommendations more subtle, with current boundaries being maintained wherever possible, while ALP proposals see boundaries shift more dramatically. In a few examples, the ALP’s proposal clearly provides them with a significant advantage.

The ALP proposal for the Hunter seat of Paterson is one example. The ALP proposes the removal of Liberal-voting Bulahdelah from the centre of the electorate, leaving a V-shaped electorate that connects the coast of Great Lakes Local Government Area (LGA) with Dungog and a majority of Maitland LGA, which seemingly shifts the marginal Liberal seat closer to becoming a Labor seat.

The ALP also proposes a redrawing of boundaries at the southern edge of Sydney which would likely favour the party. Bizarrely, the ALP proposes extending the northern Wollongong seat of Cunningham deep into the Sutherland Shire, including a small area right in the centre of Sutherland itself. This is despite the majority of the electorate remaining based around Wollongong. This allows Cunningham to absorb Liberal-voting areas in south-western Sutherland, which in turn shifts Hughes deeper into South-Western Sydney. Hughes, which has been held by Liberal MP Danna Vaile since 1996, is currently a Sutherland-based seat including parts of Liverpool. The ALP instead makes the seat a seat based in Liverpool and Campbelltown, with a smaller part in north-western Sutherland. This would appear to make the seat either a marginal Labor seat or a much-more-Marginal Liberal seat, and could be an attempt to kill off Vaile’s career.

To the west of Hughes, it appears that both major parties have worked to destroy the existing seat of Macarthur. The 2000 redistribution shifted Macarthur from the Southern Highlands to be a seat based on both Labor-voting southern Campbelltown and Liberal-voting Camden, along with parts of the Wollondilly Shire. The seat was won for the Liberal Party in 2001 by ultra marathon runner Pat Farmer despite the redistribution making it a notional Labor seat. In 2007 Farmer’s 11.1% margin was eliminated and the seat almost fell to low-profile ALP candidate Nick Bleasdale.

While it already appeared likely that Farmer would either retire, lose preselection, or lose the seat to the ALP in 2010, both parties’ proposals destroy his seat. The ALP proposal would see Macarthur abolished, replacing it with a safe Labor seat in Campbelltown (Werriwa) and a safe Liberal seat from Camden to Bowral (Hume). In practice, the Liberal proposal would produce a similar outcome, with the Labor and Liberal-voting parts of the Macarthur region being cleanly divided between safe seats for both parties.

Comments on the first round of suggestions will close next Friday, May 15, before the AEC will produce draft boundaries. The redistribution will conclude this year. If a double dissolution is called before the redistribution is concluded, however, the AEC will be forced to quickly abolish one of New South Wales’ 49 seats, which they will do by merging the two bordering electorates with the lowest population in the state. This would see Sydney and Lowe being merged to form a vastly overpopulated electorate, despite the fact that the only boundary between the two electorates running through Sydney Harbour, with the seat of Grayndler sitting between them.

Disclosure: Ben Raue was a candidate for Macarthur at the 2007 election.

Peter Fray

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