The AEC's decision to cut the number of House of Representative seats has started an uneasy game of musical chairs.
In any single-member electoral system, there are few things quite so sure to give a politician sleepless nights as a redrawing of electoral boundaries.
Writing in his now-famous diaries in 2000, Mark Latham encapsulated the sentiment when he complained that redistributions were "bloody horrible things, out of your control". Strikingly, this was said in reference to an arrangement that left undisturbed the safe Labor status of his south-western Sydney seat of Werriwa. He was nonetheless left sweating over the loss of friendly ALP branches from his preselection turf, which were replaced by what he described as "stacked Left-wing branches in Liverpool".
Matters become all the more fraught, and turf wars all the bloodier, in the games of musical chairs that proceed when the number of available seats is reduced.
This is the prospect that faces federal MPs in a yet-to-be-determined corner of New South Wales, following yesterday's determination by the Australian Electoral Commission
that the state's House of Representatives entitlement has been cut from 48 seats to 47. The beneficiary of the change is Western Australia, which gathered enough steam during its now-spent mining boom to warrant a 16th seat.
Both changes represent the continuation of long-term trends, albeit that they may be starting to reverse
. When the House of Representatives was increased to its present size in 1984, New South Wales had 51 seats and Western Australia 13. New South Wales has undergone a particularly dramatic downturn in the past decade, such that this will be its third seat loss over four electoral cycles.
One of the consequences of the AEC’s determination will be to complicate any move the government might wish to make towards an early election.
Thanks to a High Court ruling in 1975, once the determination is made it is a matter of constitutional necessity that seat entitlements be met whenever the election might be held. Should the redistribution process still be in train -- and it generally takes the better part of a year -- this will have to be accomplished through the immensely awkward contingency of a "mini-redistribution". This would involve the two least populous neighbouring seats in New South Wales being merged into one (most likely the north coast seats of Page and Cowper, respectively held for the Nationals by Kevin Hogan and Luke Hartsuyker), and the two most populous in Western Australia (Pearce and Canning) being hurriedly divided into three.
Otherwise, it will be left to the redistribution commissioners to determine which New South Wales MP is to have their seat pulled out from underneath them, and where the new electorate in Western Australia should be mapped out.
While there are an infinite variety of ways the redistribution puzzle can be put together, logic dictates that the most likely seat for the chop in New South Wales will be located in the area of lowest enrolment. As demonstrated by a map at psephologist Ben Raue's website The Tally Room
, there is an unbroken run of electorates with enrolment running 5% to 10% below the state average from the Hunter region north to Ballina, encompassing most of the state's coastline north of Sydney.
Raue makes a compelling case that the most obvious candidate for abolition is the seat of Hunter, held for Labor by Joel Fitzgibbon. The seat's most populous region around Maitland and Cessnock could be added to the coastal electorates to bring them up to quota, while the rural interior regions would fit seamlessly into the surrounding Nationals strongholds of New England, Parkes and Calare.
In Western Australia, the new seat will have to account for new development in Perth's outer suburbs. This could most tidily be effected in the city's south-east, roughly around Gosnells and Armadale, where the work would be undisturbed by natural ocean or river boundaries.
If that is indeed how it plays out, the redistributions will make an incremental addition to the Abbott government's notional majority. The loss of a Hunter region seat in New South Wales would certainly be at Labor's expense, and based on Labor's disastrous result in Western Australia last year, it's difficult to see a new seat there failing to make it 13 Liberal seats out of 16 -- even if it’s based around the working-class dormitory suburbs of Perth's south-east.
With all that said, it should be stressed that nothing in the complicated game of electoral redistribution can be taken for granted. In the case of New South Wales, ABC election analyst Antony Green offers that a “more radical” approach might involve the abolition of both Hunter and the safe Nationals seat of Riverina, with the void to filled by “a new Upper Hunter/Mid-West seat”.
However, I do have one prediction with respect to the New South Wales redistribution that I believe I can make with confidence. The electorate of Werriwa, whose fate so troubled Mark Latham 14 years ago, will undergo a name change in honour of its member from 1952 to 1978 -- Edward Gough Whitlam.