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South Australia

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.

William Bowe — Editor of The Poll Bludger

William Bowe

Editor of The Poll Bludger

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 comments

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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.