In yesterday’s Crikey, Ben Raue gave an excellent summary of the submissions on the current federal redistribution for New South Wales, particularly those from the major parties. (No, I’m not offended that he didn’t mention mine — it’s number 122, if you’re looking.) But it raises an interesting question: why do the major political parties put so much effort into a process that they have essentially no influence over?

Australia has gone to great lengths to ensure that redistributions are above politics. The members of redistribution committees are appointed automatically, most of them have security of tenure, their proceedings are non-partisan and open to public scrutiny at each stage and their final determinations take effect without parliamentary approval. In this area we are a world leader.

Yet, in both New South Wales and Queensland the ALP and Coalition parties have put considerable time and resources into very detailed submissions to the committees as to where they should draw the boundaries. (I was hired by the Victorian Liberal Party once to do this, so I know something about what’s involved.)

We know from past experience that the committee members will pay polite acknowledgement to these submissions, but basically ignore them. They would be fools to do otherwise, since, as Ben explained yesterday, they are tailored primarily to political advantage, often at the expense of the most elementary geographical logic. So why do the parties bother?

It can hardly be a PR exercise, only political tragics ever read the submissions and among them the parties are more likely to lose credibility from the strange proposals that they make.

The submissions might have some value to the parties internally, as a way for the machine to reassure its MPs that it’s fighting for their interests. But that doesn’t always work — sometimes a party throws one of its own to the wolves, as the NSW Liberals are doing to Hume’s Alby Schultz. Even when it does work, it depends on the illusion that the parties can influence the process.

Some political operatives still seem to harbor that illusion and thirty years ago there might have been some truth to it. But when pressed for modern examples, the only ones they can quote are from a later stage of the process, after draft boundaries have been produced and the public gets to raise objections to them.

It’s true that well-argued objections from political parties (or anyone else) are sometimes listened to. But that’s a different process; you can make objections without having made a comprehensive submission, or indeed any submission at all. Don’t think comprehensive submissions give you added credibility at the objections stage — the draft boundaries usually bear no relationship to what the parties proposed, the arguments they have to make are completely separate and often contradict their earlier reasoning.

It might be different if the parties tried to frame in a general way the choices that the committee has to make, leading it in a direction that might end up favoring their interests. But in practice party submissions don’t provide any grand narrative; they combine platitudes about the process with fine detail about the hoped-for outcomes.

And even if they did, it would be risky: witness the 2003 federal redistribution in South Australia, where the committee accepted the broad logic of the ALP’s submission, but implemented the detail in such a way that it worked quite strongly against the ALP’s interests.

I’m not sure that it’s a good idea to discourage this effort; drawing maps and adding up numbers are among the least harmful things that a party head office could be doing, and it may even have some value for their staff as intellectual exercise. But the media need to disabuse themselves of the notion that party submissions have an impact in the real world.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey