Should the worst transpire for the Liberals at the Canning byelection on September 19, they will be able to take solace in the fact that they won’t go into the next election any further back than they started, at least so far as Western Australia is concerned.

For this they can thank a redistribution of the state’s federal electoral boundaries, a draft of which was published this morning by the Australian Electoral Commission.

The redistribution has been occasioned by an increase in WA’s population-based entitlement from 15 House of Representatives seats to 16, reflecting trends both long term (the state only had 13 seats when parliament increased to its current size in 1984) and short term (its population increased by 20% during the mining boom years of 2007 to 2013).

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An extra seat in WA could hardly fail to be good news for the Liberals, given it has been the party’s strongest state at three elections running, and delivered them 12 out of 15 seats in both 2010 and 2013.

This has been borne out to the extent that the proposed new seat of Burt in Perth’s southern suburbs has a notional Liberal margin of 5% — meaning the score for the state going into the next election will be 13-3 rather 12-3.

However, one bet that seems reasonably safe with respect to the next election is that the Liberals can’t possibly maintain their recent form in WA. As such, the more significant point regarding the proposed boundaries is that a seat on a margin as modest as 5% represents one more piece of low-hanging fruit for Labor in the event of a solid swing, particularly when the absence of a defending Liberal member is taken into account.

This point is reinforced by the complexion of the area at state level, since much of the area corresponds with the safe or fairly safe Labor seats of Armadale and Gosnells.

The creation of the new seat is of particular interest with respect to the looming byelection for Canning, since Armadale is what makes the electorate theoretically winnable for Labor.

Should Labor candidate Matt Keogh prevail, he will presumably start lobbying for a shot at the new seat rather than redrawn Canning, the Liberal margin of which increases slightly from 11.8% to around 13%. But if Liberal candidate Andrew Hastie can hold on, his long term position will be that much safer.

The general strategy of the redistribution does not come as a surprise, since both major parties agreed that the newly created electorate should encompass Armadale and surrounding territory in the southern suburbs.

Both parties presumably anticipated that the seat would more likely than not be won by Labor, but the Liberals had their eye on favourable knock-on effects to the electorate of Hasluck immediately to the north — the most marginal Liberal seat in the state, having been held for them since 2010 by the only indigenous member of the House of Representatives, Ken Wyatt.

These hopes have been largely realised, as the proposed boundaries for Hasluck extend the electorate eastwards into the Darling Range, just as the Liberal submission suggested, thereby adding about 1% to Wyatt’s margin.

The redistribution also does the Liberals a good turn closer to the city in the seat of Swan, which Steve Irons gained for the party against the national trend at the 2007 election and has held ever since, by carving off territory at the seat’s Labor-voting south-eastern end, which boosts the margin by about 1% from its existing 6.5%.

The good news for Labor is that the northern suburbs seat of Cowan, which has been held for the Liberals since 2007 by Luke Simpkins — noted as the instigator of the February leadership spill, and also for his hostility to halal food — is to lose the Liberal-voting suburbs of Woodvale and Kingsley in the west and gain the Labor-voting Beechboro area in the east, cutting the margin from 7.5% to around 4%.

A full breakdown of the proposal can be found on my blog, The Poll Bludger.

The next stages in the redistribution process are invitations for objections and counter-objections, to be followed by a definitive determination at the end of the year, which is unlikely to do more than tinker with the proposal announced today.
Meanwhile, the process for the redistribution in New South Wales that will make way for WA’s extra seat by paring it back from 48 seats to 47 grinds on, with draft boundaries to be expected by the end of September.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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