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Mar 17, 2014

An SA gerrymander? Libs, short of government, test the boundaries

The Liberal Party won more support than Labor in South Australia, but it's still short of government. Does the system need fixing? Our electoral analyst considers the possibilities.


Saturday’s state elections in South Australia and Tasmania were a study in contrasts: one a landslide and one a cliffhanger; a drubbing for Labor and an unexpected morale-booster.

In Tasmania, the Liberals secured a decisive majority of as many as 15 out of 25 seats, in the context of an electoral system faulted by its critics as a recipe for minority government and parliamentary gridlock. In South Australia, the single-member electoral system that privileges major parties will more likely than not find independents holding the balance of power.

Barring late-count miracles, the South Australian Liberals look certain to fall short in the lower house of 47, having most likely gained three seats from Labor and one from an independent off a starting point of 18.

Labor has an outside chance of making it to the magic 24 if late counting favours it in Mitchell, but the more likely result is that it will emerge best placed to offer the two independents a workable minority government arrangement by securing 23 seats to the Liberals’ 22.

The Liberals would thus emerge from a second successive election in opposition despite winning a majority of the two-party vote, in this case by a comfortable margin of roughly 52.5-47.5.

It’s made particularly poignant by the provision in the state’s constitution — inserted after the 1989 election, at which Labor was similarly successful in retaining government from 48.1% — which enshrines the principle of “electoral fairness” when electoral boundaries are redrawn after each election. However, the directive that boundaries should deliver majorities to the more strongly supported party unavoidably includes the qualification that this should only apply “as far as practicable”.

Little effort was made to give effect to this at the most recent redistribution, as it was determined that the wildly uneven pattern of swings in 2010 was unlikely to represent a long-term shift in underlying patterns of support.

Even if the redistribution had tortured the electoral map to strong-arm more seats to the Liberal side of the pendulum, there is no guarantee it would have achieved the desired result.

Conceiving of electoral fairness in two-party terms requires that independent-held seats be classified as belonging to one major party or the other — and given the normal orientation of Geoff Brock’s seat of Frome and Bob Such’s seat of Fisher, the election has indeed returned a “conservative” majority, if only barely.

Furthermore, Labor in fact picked up swings in about the same number of seats as the Liberals, important marginal seats among them. There can thus be no guarantee that Labor would have improved its position on a hypothetical alternative set of boundaries.

“The party in SA has good cause to plead the virtues of optional preferential voting …”

The fundamental reason the single-member electorate system is in the habit of favouring Labor in South Australia is that conservative votes are wasted in extremely safe rural seats, leaving larger numbers of city marginals leaning modestly to Labor. This has activated an interest among Liberals in electoral reform, in terms which are predictably selective and tailored to its present difficulty.

The party in SA has good cause to plead the virtues of optional preferential voting, which would reduce the flow of Greens preferences to Labor and convert its primary vote leads into victories with greater frequency. The traditional downside to the conservatives of this arrangement — that it endangers them in three-cornered contests with the Nationals — is of little consequence in a state where the Nationals only run candidates in a handful of very safe rural seats.

Another idea being floated — an indeterminate number of “top-up” seats being added to the parliamentary total to ensure a majority for the party with the greatest share of the vote — is considerably cruder and harder to justify.

Labor supporters with long memories may be contemplating with some amusement Liberal complaints about an electoral “gerrymander”, given how long it suffered under the real thing prior to the electoral reforms of the 1970s.

It’s interesting to note that nobody is contemplating a return to rural vote weighting, which would now perversely deliver fairer results.

Other possible solutions to SA’s democratic deficit are more elegant, but too radical to have much chance of being seriously entertained. One would be to follow Tasmania’s lead and introduce proportional representation, with seats neatly and rationally allocated according to shares of the aggregate vote. However, as was made clear by the experience of federal Labor’s second term in office, Australia’s political culture is allergic to the coalition-building and consensus style of politics that this would entail.

Another solution is to follow the American example and properly separate the executive and legislative branches of government. That way the office of premier could be elected separately from the parliament in a single statewide election, in which one vote really would have one value.

Meanwhile in Tasmania, and not for the first time, the result illustrates how the electoral system can influence vote choice.


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23 thoughts on “An SA gerrymander? Libs, short of government, test the boundaries

  1. wilful

    William, you miss the most obvious and simple electoral reform, which would be to have proportional representation in the lower house for the State, and preferential voting for electorates in the upper house (which would have to enlarge I bit I guess). Fair, but would often require coalitions.

  2. wilful

    erm, and then I could have read your later para before commenting…. my apologies

  3. klewso

    This was like Howard’s (incumbent government’s) “GST Referendum win”?

  4. shepherdmarilyn

    Like you said, the liberals vote for the liberals in the rural areas and steal oxygen from the idea of winning any extra seats. But the liberal party in SA has been hopeless for decades and this year more than most with the creepy unknown Steve Marshall at the helm after they chewed through several others.

    I suspect a number of liberal governments will fall down in the next 18 months though as the reality of Abbott’s lunacy wakes up the braindead voters.

  5. David Hand

    Well it’s definitely not a gerrymander in the Joh sense of the word.

    I think the major factor in this result is the huge bias towards state industry and state subsidies for Adelaide. There is a culture that favours big government and government intervention in the town. This of course is Labor’s natural home turf so it’s not surprising their support is holding up in Adelaide as people vote for state subsidised jobs.

    Tell me this, what fool decided to base Australia’s next generation maritime surveillance drones in Adelaide when the obvious location has to be Darwin? That’s the sort of decision Adelaide voters went for on Saturday.

  6. Electric Lardyland

    So, when’s the Victorian election due?

  7. tonysee

    Notwithstanding the remarks about pork-barreling and my reluctance to be seen to agree with the Mad Monk, the drones will be based in Adelaide where there is a depth of specialised surveillance infrastructure (Edinburgh Air Base and DSTO) you won’t find in Broom or even Darwin.

    Like the PC3 Orion’s these planes will do their job very effectively from Adelaide.

  8. Jimmy

    David Hand – I am no defence expert but I would assume you wouldn’t want your “next generation maritime surveillance drones” based in what would quickly become “the front” on any future war and therefore making it easier for them to be disabled or captured.

  9. Casey Briggs

    Of all jurisdictions, I would’ve thought South Australia could handle proportional representation better than most – look at the Legislative Council, where no single party has had control of the chamber in something like 40 years. Coalition and consensus building is, and always has been necessary to get legislation through the parliament.

  10. David Hand

    Ah yes, silly me.
    The decision to base the drones in Adelaide had nothing to do with jobs. Nothing to do with federal propping up of Adelaide employment. Not at all.

    It’s entirely about defence doctrine. Of course.

  11. JohnH

    Although it is a concern that a majority in the popular vote is so frequently not giving an equivalent result in SA, all electoral systems can produce undesirable outcomes. A focus on the current problem can encourage short term benefits with long term negative consequences. The political culture of Australia seems unable to accept coalitions as a fact of life so I suspect neither of the major parties would favour that change opening up more opportunities for the Greens assuming their vote can be restored. What the SA system gives is a massive number of marginal seats in Adelaide. The last boundary changes pretty much favoured the Liberals. Had Marshall and the Liberals run a more competent campaign I have no doubt they would have won comfortably. They did not convince in the campaign that they were ready for government other than to the conservative electorates in which the additional votes didn’t matter. Marshall’s slip at the end of the campaign while not a game changer was symptomatic of an uninspiring campaign and raised for swinging voters a question of his experience and capacity to manage the state.

  12. AR

    The amerikan example is not only no solution but a perfect contra-indication – go back, you are going the wrong way!
    Most of Europe (and, given the date, let us not forget Ireland) uses MME based on D’Ondt mathematical rigour.
    I’m not a fan of MME but i do expect democracy in the form of numbers matter – for me the Senate is the perfect example but there IS an argument (though a pretty weak, tribal, localist one forged in the days when mass transit was Shank’s pony and the resultant in-breeding produced.. interesting genetic experiments such as the backwoods shire squires of the Septic Isle)or worse, the US Electoral College in case that damned lumpen didn’t get it right.

  13. Scott

    To be fair, David Hand, all the AP-3C Orion’s (the primary maritime surveillance aircraft of the RAAF) are based at Edinburgh (Adelaide) as well. The drones and the Orion’s basically have the same role so it makes sense to keep them together. The idea is that as South Australia is central, they can reach every part of the coast pretty quickly.

  14. Ian Brown

    “Another idea being floated — an indeterminate number of “top-up” seats being added to the parliamentary total to ensure a majority for the party with the greatest share of the vote — is considerably cruder and harder to justify.”

    Why is this “crude”? – to me it seems like a useful adaptation of the current single member constituency system to provide the equity of proportional respresentation.

  15. klewso

    Why aren’t all governments decided by proportional representation rather than second, third, fourth or even fifth best, by exhaustion of preference votes? So that more of us have a voice in how we’re governed.

    At present a party can get 10% of the popular vote and not have one seat in the house of legislature, while a party with less than 40% of the primary vote can form government, with another party on even less than that 10%.

  16. Sean Doyle

    @Electric Lardyland: November the 29th. On current polling, expect the current LNP winning streak to be broken.

    One issue that results such as last year’s federal election and last weekend’s Tasmanian election raise is why do voters in Australia seem to have such a phobia of minority government. In the federal case in particular, some blame has to go to the media for sensationalising what was happening in the HoR (i.e. pretty much what happens all the time in the Senate), but perhaps there is something more than the media exploiting/exhibiting ignorance? It certainly seems a bit strange given how many people claim to desire finding a middle ground and coming together to solve problems that there is such antipathy to the form of government most likely to deliver just that.

  17. The Old Bill

    Don’t see a problem myself, we had a damn good coalition running Australia until the Murdoch and other media juggernauts spent most of their term rubbishing them, so now we can get a few things done in SA until The Advertiser and the local talk back radio guys persuade us that a coalition is a bad idea here too.
    If Jay Weatherill is sensible he will adjust the electorsl boundaries properly this time like Joh used to and then we will have really stable government for a long time to come.
    (Has anyone else noticed that we are still being governed federally by a coalition anyway? :)) )

  18. klewso

    A Coalition that in earlier government (with much the same personnel) gave tax cuts for votes and thus (coupled to the cost of Iraq) set in motion the mechanics for the much of the deficit we have now – that we’re going to have to pay for through the nose for their self-indulgence – and they’re still being touted as such “great economic managers” by the one-eyed press.

  19. David Hand

    I doubt that Australian voters think very much about hung parliaments. We all vote for the candidate we want and when the votes are counted, you sometimes have no absolute majority.

    It’s what politicians do then that gives everyone a bad taste in their mouths and in this matter, I believe we have experienced two parliaments where Labor has simply traded away too much of its platform to the Greens in order to win government. I am confident that Gillard would still have won power in 2010 without selling out the carbon tax to the greens. Just that one principled stand alone might have saved them in 2013.

    I think it’s part of the Labor malaise. They realise they need to hold firm beliefs so engage western Sydney focus groups to tell them what those firm beliefs should be.

  20. Professor Tournesol

    Well there certainly is a problem with the voting system when around 10% of the population who vote Green in state or Federal elections end up with no representation whatsoever in parliament. 10% of voters = no voice.
    Every system is going to have it’s pluses and minuses, it depends on which set of them we want, however we should be designing a system that includes as many voices as possible if we want Parliaments to be a reflection of the will of the people.

  21. Tim nash

    William, either way someone will be unhappy.

    If we change to your American there will be an outcome that some other side of politics in the future will bemoan and write an article about on crikey.

    This is a political situation in SA that the Liberals knew might happen, part of the political challenge is to get over those hurdles and they didn’t.

    If they deserved a clear victory we would of seen it in the results, If they had the headlines ‘Labor trumped in SA’ would of appeared.

    So all this talk of process, it’s garbage.

  22. PaulM

    The SA Liberals have a long history of opposition to electoral reform, notwithstanding that Steel Hall did away with the Playford gerrymander in the late 1960’s, and promptly lost office. It is the dread fear of having to share the seats in the House of Assmebly with a party other than Labor that drives their behaviour (and that fear extends to the Nationals). The Democrats in the 80’s and 90’s and now the Greens, achieved a high enough vote in localised areas (eg Adelaide Hills) to score a small number of seats that would upset the duopoly. However, on the current boundaries, and with last weekend’s votes, the Liberals would have achieved a majority (24 seats) based on a collection of eight 5-member electorates and one 7-member electorate. If the liberals ever woke up to how they could harness heir high vote proprtion in rural areas (including 5 seats with margins greater than Labor’s safest seat going into Saturday) a fairer system, based on proportional representation, might just get up.

  23. Klass Woldring

    If we are serious about electoral reform in Australia it is not a matter of moving to optional preferential voting as we hear often. It is getting rid of highly undemocratic single-member-electoral district system in all lower houses, except Tasmania. BUT there is more: the best alternative is not Hare-Clark proportional representation. Hare-Clark is the only PR system Australia knows – not surprisingly it is also of British origin, but it is not the best, far from it. The best PR system is the Open Party List system which is used in 80%+ of countries that use proportional representation – and here we are talking about around 90 countries. Open Party List requires the voter to make one mark only for the party of his or her choice (out of several) – as well as (at the same time) voting for the preferred candidate on that list. These systems are very democratic, create diversity in legislatures, are cost effective, counting is fast, no boundary changes, no gerrymandering, no pork barrelling, rarely country/city discrepancies (as in SA) and no by-elections. It seems that Australian people are almost completely ignorant about this system. The AEC has never TAKEN the trouble to educate Australians about alternatives although it IS, by law, an INDEPENDENT BODY. We should ask have the Australian people ever had the opportunity, in a referendum or plebiscite, to state a preference for an electoral system?
    The answer is NO my friends but that is what we should campaigning for. The people I mean because the major parties won’t have a bar of this. The existing system suits them fine but it has nothing to with representative democracy. Open Party List system would end the adversarial nonsense that passed for parliamentary debate here. It would mean the beginning of a new political culture. Bring it on I would say. Klaas Woldring, A/Prof. (SCU) (ret)


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