Another small milestone today in the process of redistributing federal electoral boundaries in New South Wales and Queensland (NSW is losing a seat, Queensland is gaining one). Objections to the draft boundaries close at 5pm. Queensland’s calendar is slightly ahead; objections there closed two weeks ago.

Australia is a world leader in this field: redistributions are impartial, transparent and exhaustive. First, public suggestions are called for, then people can make comments on the suggestions, then proposed boundaries are released with the commissioners’ reasoning, then objections to the proposals, then comments on the objections. The final determinations are expected to be made in December.

Once upon a time, only political parties and the occasional rogue psephologist took much interest in all this. A redistribution in Queensland in 2003 attracted just 35 objections; the previous year, one in Victoria got 46. But objections have recently become much more numerous. When NSW and Queensland were done together in 2005, Queensland had 189 objections, while NSW had an extraordinary 1,989.

The controversy in NSW last time concerned the proposed abolition of Gwydir, which became the subject of an unprecedented direct-mail campaign. (It was partially successful: the final boundaries kept a seat that was recognisably the old Gwydir, albeit with a different name.) This year, something similar is happening in Queensland: 555 objections have been received, almost all of them objecting to the proposal to transfer some Townsville suburbs from Herbert to Dawson.

National media attention to redistributions almost always focuses on their political implications. This year Labor has done rather well — Antony Green calculates a notional net Labor gain of five seats. But the objections suggest that people on the ground are much more concerned about local representation than about political effects. And that would make sense: history shows that the political implications of redistributions are usually minor and transient: overall swings and the advantages of incumbency easily swamp most boundary changes. Voters change governments, not the commissioners.

But the local and the political are closely entwined. The Townsville objections, while not without substance (granted that Townsville is now too big to fit in one seat, I still don’t see that it had to be divided among three), are not spontaneous: they have been orchestrated by the local member, Liberal Peter Lindsay. While it would be churlish to suggest that he doesn’t care about the difficulties in representation that his constituents might face, no doubt his main worry is about the political complexion of his seat.

A constant in the process, as evidenced by Gwydir and Herbert, is that changes in rural and regional areas generate far more objections and angst than what happens in the city — whether because people outside the major urban centres have more time on their hands, or because country members depend more on their personal vote and so take time to inform the consituents of what’s going on.

That’s why my guess is that NSW this time — where the commissioners have chosen to abolish an urban seat — will get fewer objections than Queensland, and far fewer than in 2006. But if some disgruntled MP has been working overtime on the form letters, the commissioners may yet get another mountain of paper to deal with.

Peter Fray

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