Among the less attractive features of American democracy, one that has mercifully little parallel in Australia, is the drawing of electoral boundaries by partisan legislators in pursuit of their own advantage.

Under the Australian model, which applies federally and in every state and territory, redistributions are the work of committees consisting of the Electoral Commissioner and two or three other officials at arm’s length of the political contest — typically the Auditor-General, the Surveyor-General and/or a senior judge.

Those with a direct interest in the matter can do no more than offer suggestions and raise objections after the publication of a draft proposal.

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Certainly that doesn’t stop MPs complaining, often very bitterly, when new boundaries undermine their electoral position or cost them their seat altogether. But very rarely is it alleged that those drawing the boundaries did so on the basis of ulterior motives.

However, just such a suggestion has emerged in recent days in the Northern Territory, following the publication of proposed new boundaries for the 25 electorates in its Legislative Assembly.

This has served as a catalyst for the resignation from the governing Country Liberal Party of Robyn Lambley, whose Alice Springs seats of Araluen has been mooted for abolition.

As related in detail by Bob Gosford in Crikey yesterday, Lambley’s decision was made against a backdrop of dysfunction within a CLP party room that attempted to depose Adam Giles as Chief Minister in February, but had to back down when opponents of the move threatened to bring down the government. The next day, Giles identified Lambley as one of the chief conspirators, and dumped her from his cabinet.

Among the more conventional grievances raised by Lambley yesterday was an intimation that the proposed abolition of her seat had been no coincidence.

This echoed a view expressed earlier this week by Alison Anderson, a long-serving indigenous MP who has variously been with Labor, the CLP and the Palmer United Party, and now sits as an independent. Anderson argued that the rearrangement of boundaries in Alice Springs had been to the advantage of Giles in his seat of Braitling, and called into question the independence of the Northern Territory Electoral Commission.

For her part, Lambley claims that Giles said at a party room meeting that he “intended to put a proposal to the Electoral Commission to have the electorate of Araluen scrapped”.

But however justified Lambley’s animus towards her former colleagues might be on other fronts, claims about the integrity of the redistribution process strike a number of false notes.

Close observers of government in the Northern Territory do not doubt the independence of the three statutory officers who make up the redistribution committee.

Furthermore, far from recommending that Araluen be scrapped, the submission signed off on by Giles went to great lengths to propose that all three Alice Springs seats should be preserved.

That the redistribution committee didn’t end up seeing it that way should come as no surprise.

Population growth in Darwin has been such that a new electorate was clearly required to accommodate it, at the expense of one elsewhere.

Stagnation in Alice Springs in recent years meant that its three seats were among the four most under-nourished in terms of population, together with the Arnhem Land electorate of Nhulunbuy, which has been hit hard by the closure of Rio Tinto’s bauxite processing plant.

Another argument against the strategy proposed by the CLP carries resonance from debates over redistricting in the United States, namely the racial dimension.

Outside of Darwin, almost exactly half of the Northern Territory population identified as indigenous at the 2011 census. But because much of the indigenous population was concentrated in a small number of remote electorates, only four of the 13 non-Darwin electorates have indigenous-majority populations on the current boundaries (although a fifth comes extremely close).

With the exceptions of the Darwin hinterland seats of Nelson and Goyder, the “whitest” of the non-Darwin seats are the three in Alice Springs. The CLP submission proposed that these be brought up to quota by absorbing voters beyond the town limits, who are currently accommodated by Alison Anderson’s indigenous-majority electorate of Namatjira.

There can hardly be any surprise that the committee was reluctant to sign up to a proposal that would have clearly violated the principle that boundaries should unite “communities of interest”, and in doing so maintain three white-majority electorates at the expense of a largely indigenous seat.

Lambley might well feel aggrieved that her own electorate was the one selected for the chop, but her evident incapacity to secure preselection for one of the remaining two obviously says more about the internal politics of the CLP than the capriciousness of the redistribution committee.

In the broader context of governmental dysfunction in the Northern Territory, it might well be thought that the placement of electoral boundaries is a second-order concern.

But in fact, a good place to start in addressing what ails government in the territory would be to do away altogether with its tiny single-member electorates, each of which serves barely more than 5000 voters, and follow the example of the Australian Capital Territory by introducing proportional representation.

As well as increasing the potential for a more socially representative parliament, this would, in the view of Darwin legal academic and one-time Labor MP Ken Parish, ameliorate a “winner take all” mentality that has served only to promote “thuggish and utterly unprincipled behaviour”.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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