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Drawing House of Representatives electorate boundaries
National elections play an important part in the way these principles are upheld in Australia. Virtually all citizens over the age of eighteen have the right to vote, there are no major inequalities in the value of their votes, most election results are decided by a majority of voters, and the people have a guaranteed input into the manner in which electorates are organised.
An important part of the Australian democratic system is the way in which electorate boundaries are drawn, for if this were seriously distorted, a lack of public acceptance could undermine the public perception of the legitimacy of Australia’s national elections. This article discusses these arrangements. (footnote 3)
The redistribution process
Australia’s House of Representatives is made up of single-member electorates (also called ‘divisions’, ‘seats’, ‘constituencies’). The Australian Electoral Commission is required to periodically redraw the boundaries for these electorates in what is called a ‘redistribution’, with the aim being to ensure that the enrolment in the electorates in any given state or territory remain as equal in size as possible. The use of statistics provided by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) is central to this operation, for the Australian Statistician is required by law to provide many of the statistics needed for a redistribution. (footnote 4)
When are redistributions required?
Before 1984 there was no set time for the holding of Commonwealth redistributions, and when they did occur, all electorates in all states were usually redistributed at the same time. Governments, rather than legislation, set the time for redistributions. The lack of a fixed schedule meant that political considerations could affect the timing of a redistribution, and if there was any lengthy delay, electorate sizes could vary considerably, thus distorting the value of individual votes. The 1968 redistribution in all states occurred thirteen years after the previous redistribution, and by the time it was held the largest electorate (in Victoria) numbered 130,520 voters while the smallest (in New South Wales) contained only 29,243 voters.
Changes to the electoral legislation in 1983-84 brought regularity and a greater equality to the redistribution process, with the timing of future redistributions henceforth being decided by the law rather than by governments.
There are three ways in which a redistribution of a state’s or territory’s electorates can be triggered:
(1) A change in a state or territory’s entitlement
The overriding principle at work in the redistribution process is to have electorates as nearly the same size as is possible to achieve. As the populations of each state and territory shift, so too can the number of parliamentary members to which each is entitled. Is a state’s population growing so quickly as to entitle it to another MP? Is another’s falling, lessening its parliamentary entitlement? The first possible trigger for a redistribution, then, is an official finding that the entitlement of a state or territory has altered.
Since 1984 there have been 14 electoral redistributions triggered in this way: 1989 (redistributions in Vic., WA), 1992 (NSW, Qld, SA), 1994 (Vic., Qld, ACT), 1997 (Qld, ACT), 2000 (WA, NT), 2003 (Qld, SA).
The method for determining state and territory entitlements is illustrated here by reference to the most recent examples. (footnote 5)
On 12 February 2002 the House of Representatives sat for the first time following the election of November 2001. In accordance with the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 (Cwlth), in the thirteenth month after that first sitting day (in this case, 19 February 2003), a determination was made on as to the number of MPs there should be representing each state and territory. This exercise was based on the latest population statistics for the states and territories provided to the Electoral Commissioner by the Australian Statistician. At this stage, the first of two quotas used in the redistribution of electorates was calculated.
The first calculation made was of what is called the ‘population quota’. To calculate this, the total population of the six states, as ascertained by the ABS, was divided by twice the number of state senators (144):
Total population of the states = population quota
(2 x number of state senators)
In February 2003, this calculation was as follows:
19,205,190 = 133,369.375
The population quota was then used to calculate the MP entitlement of each state and territory. The population of each was divided by the population quota to give the number of MPs to which each was entitled. When such a calculation is made, if the remainder in any calculation is greater than 0.5, the figure for the number of MPs is rounded up. If the remainder is less than or equal to 0.5, the figure is rounded down.
As a result of the calculation in February 2003, it was determined that:
Having established that the number of MPs for each of Queensland and South Australia would alter, a redistribution for these states was thus required. In the case of the Northern Territory, however, the loss of one of its two electorates meant that the electorates would be merged, making a redistribution redundant. Despite this finding, its story took an unexpected turn that is recounted below.
(2) Changes in electorate enrolments
The movement in the Australian population is also reflected in the numbers of people who are registered to vote. Enrolment figures shift constantly: voters are enrolling for the first time, they are moving from one residence to another in their home town, they are shifting from rural areas to the urban areas or the reverse, they move from state to state, a few will regain the vote after a period in gaol. As they shift around the country, so do electorate enrolment numbers change - most will be increasing in size, some quite quickly, a few may be declining in size. As these changes occur, so can occur the second grounds that may trigger a redistribution.
Every month the Australian Electoral Commissioner is required to determine enrolment totals for all House of Representatives electorates. Also monthly, the Electoral Commissioner must establish the average enrolment for all electorates in a state or territory. The Electoral Commissioner must then establish the extent to which the number of electors enrolled in each electorate differs from the average electorate enrolment in each state and territory. A redistribution must take place when the number of electors in more than a third of a state’s electorates, or in one of the ACT electorates, varies from the average state electorate enrolment by more than 10% in three consecutive months, or two months in the case of the ACT.
Since the 1983-84 changes to legislation, no redistribution has yet occurred because of this requirement.
(3) The passage of time
If, during a period of seven years, neither provision (1) nor provision (2) has forced a redistribution in a particular state or territory, then a new redistribution must be conducted. As the most recent Victorian redistribution had been finalised in 1994, it was deemed that a new redistribution should occur in that state during 2002.
Since 1983 there have been 7 electoral redistributions triggered in this way: in 1992 (Tas., ACT), 1997 (WA), 1999 (Tas., NSW, SA), 2002-03 (Vic.).
Changes in MP numbers
The net impact of regular redistributions is that the number of MPs in the House representing the various states and territories alters gradually over time - as also does the total number of MPs (table S2.1).
It can be seen that changes in the size of the House of Representatives caused by redistributions are only slight. This is due to the ‘nexus’ clause (section 24) in the Commonwealth Constitution. Section 24 says that the number of members of the House of Representatives ‘shall be, as nearly as practicable, twice the number of the senators’. The High Court has stated that this means that the House must remain at about twice the number of state senators. As there are currently 72 state senators, the House must therefore number about 144 MPs. Major changes to the size of the House of Representatives, as occurred in 1949 and 1984, can only be made in conjunction with major changes in the size of the Senate.
A redistribution takes place
After it has been established that a redistribution must be conducted in a particular state or territory, the Australian Electoral Commission announces the commencement of the process in the Commonwealth Gazette.
The Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 (Cwlth) is written so as to ensure that electorate sizes do not vary too greatly - as used to occur from time to time. There are two provisions designed to achieve this, the first of which involves the second quota figure that is used in Australian redistributions.
The Australian Electoral Commissioner now determines what is known as the ‘enrolment quota’ for the state or territory where electorates are to be redistributed. This figure is the average enrolment of the state or territory, and is established by dividing the number of enrolments in that state or territory by the number of electorates to which the state or territory is entitled.
The constant shift in electorate populations due to people enrolling, people moving around the country, and people dying, means that it is impossible to have each electorate in a state or territory exactly the same size. The enrolment quota is used to establish the permissible variation in electorate size - usually called the ‘quota variation’. The quota variation for Australia’s national elections is currently 10%. This means that at the time of a redistribution in a state or territory, the number of electors in each electorate may vary, but may not be more than 10% of the enrolment quota, nor less than 10% of the enrolment quota.
Projected average enrolment
In addition, a ‘projected average enrolment’ is calculated. This is the estimated average electorate enrolment in the state or territory three and a half years from the date of the redistribution. This figure may vary by no more than 3.5% above or below the average in any electorate. The aim here is that by making allowance for excessive growth or contraction in particular areas, a state’s or a territory’s electorates still remain within allowable bounds at the end of a seven-year period after a redistribution. (footnote 6) This does not always succeed. Table S2.1 shows that the very rapid growth in Queensland’s population has meant that there have been redistributions for that state prior to the elections of 1993, 1996, 2001 and 2004.
Table S2.2 shows the results of these calculations for the 2002-03 Victorian and the 2003 Queensland and South Australian redistributions.
For Victoria the enrolment quota was 88,093 electors. Therefore, at the time of the 2002-03 redistribution, the quota variation of 10% above or below the enrolment quota meant that the permissible maximum electorate size was 96,902 electors, and the permissible minimum was 79,284 electors.
For Queensland the enrolment quota was 84,078 electors, with the permissible maximum electorate size being 92,485 electors, and the permissible minimum being 75,671 electors.
For South Australia the enrolment quota was 94,834 electors, with the permissible maximum electorate size being 104,317 electors and the permissible minimum being 85,351 electors.
The projected average enrolments for these states were as follows. For Victoria the projected average enrolment was 93,882 electors. Projected electorate enrolments three and a half years after the redistribution should not vary from this by more or less than 3.5% - a permissible maximum of 97,168 electors and a permissible minimum of 90,596 electors. The Queensland figures were a projected average of 93,625 electors, with a permissible maximum of 96,901 electors, and a permissible minimum of 90,349 electors. The South Australian equivalents were a 98,909 projected average enrolment, with a permissible maximum of 102,370 and permissible minimum of 95,448 electors.
The Redistribution Committee
The electoral redistribution process is designed to give members of the public various opportunities to have their views heard. The first occurs once the process has formally begun, when the Australian Electoral Commissioner invites public suggestions concerning the redistribution. There are 30 days are allowed for responses to be made to this general invitation, after which 14 more days are allowed for public comments on the lodged suggestions.
Meanwhile a Redistribution Committee is established for the state or territory that is involved in the redistribution. The membership of this committee is set by law:
The names of electorates
In 1986 the Parliamentary Joint Select Committee on Electoral Reform drew up a set of guidelines for the naming of Commonwealth electorates. These guidelines influence the naming decisions that are made by Redistribution Committees: (footnote 7)
Naming after persons
Where possible, electorates should be named after people, ‘who have rendered outstanding service to their country’, especially former Prime Ministers. In the 2002-03 Victorian redistribution, former Prime Minister John Gorton (1968-71) was so honoured. The first 19 of Australia’s 25 Prime Ministers have electorates named after them.
The ‘Federation’ electorates
Every effort should be made to retain the names of the electorates used in the first national elections. Currently, 39 of the 63 original electorate names (the 'Federation electorates') are in still use, including Parkes (NSW), Corio (Vic.), Capricornia (Qld) and Swan (WA). (footnote 8)
Locality or place names should ‘generally be avoided’, though in some cases the use of geographical names ‘may be appropriate’. The New South Wales electorates of Eden-Monaro, New England and Riverina fall into this category. If geographical names are used, identifying terms such as North Sydney or Port Adelaide should be used if relevant, and if in common use.
Aboriginal names should be used where appropriate and, as far as possible, the names of existing electorates with Aboriginal names should be retained. Indi (Vic.) and Maranoa (Qld) have been used since the first election; Namadgi (ACT) was used for the 1996 election, though it ceased to be used when the Australian Capital Territory’s entitlement fell by one for the 1998 election.
Although the guidelines prefer that the names of Commonwealth electorates should not duplicate existing state electorates, there are a few that are used in both Commonwealth and state settings. This is seen most notably in regard to the Tasmanian electorates. The five Tasmanian House of Representatives electorates have the same boundaries as the five Tasmanian House of Assembly electorates, and the same names: Bass, Braddon, Denison, Franklin and Lyons.
The naming guidelines also state that names of electorates should not be changed or transferred to new areas without very strong reasons. This is a particular problem when a state is to lose an electorate for there are usually strong reasons for the continuance of all names in use at the time. Very often the loss of an electorate sees the near-amalgamation of two existing electorates. When this occurs, the guidelines state that as far as possible the name of the new electorate should be that of the electorate which has the greatest number of electors within the new boundaries. Unusually, this did not occur in the 2003 South Australian redistribution. In this case the new electorate of Wakefield received 55,185 electors from the abolished electorate of Bonython, but only 28,708 electors from the abolished electorate of Wakefield (it also received 5,822 from the electorate of Grey). (footnote 9)
The Redistribution Committee explained the reasoning for the retaining the name of Wakefield in preference to that of Bonython:
Once suggestions and comments have been received from the public, the Redistribution Committee considers these and then draws a set of boundaries for the state or territory. There are various restrictions placed upon the Redistribution Committee, all of which have an effect on where the lines are to be drawn.
To start with, the Commonwealth Constitution (section 29) is quite explicit that an electorate ‘shall not be formed out parts of different States’. This means that the Redistribution Committee has some lines drawn for it even before it begins work - the state or territory borders. This can create quite artificial barriers between areas that have a great deal in common, such as in the case of Albury, currently in the New South Wales electorate of Farrer, which is only five kilometres from Wodonga, currently in the Victorian electorate of Indi.
As mentioned, the committee must keep in mind the number of electorates to be formed, the enrolment quota for the state or territory, the limits set by the quota variation, and the projected average enrolment in three and a half years.
Apart from these equalisation requirements, the Redistribution Committee must also work to the provision spelled out in the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 (Cwlth) that, subject to the equalisation requirements, the committee ‘shall give due consideration’ in each proposed electorate to:
In addition, the boundaries of existing electorates in the state or territory may be taken into account, though this consideration is subordinate to those already mentioned.
All of these factors are designed to create electorates that are as socially homogenous as is possible to achieve. For example, Sydney Harbour has always been treated as the boundary to the electorates that touch it. In practice, though, the requirement to have electorates as equal as possible tends to outweigh the community of interest, communication and geographical considerations.
Having produced a set of electorates, the Redistribution Committee now:
Once the draft proposals have been published, the public may again have input into the process. At this stage 28 days are allowed for the submission of any objections to the proposals. These objections are then published, and a 14-day period allowed for the receipt of written comments on any of the objections.
At this juncture an ‘augmented’ Electoral Commission is formed. It is composed of the Redistribution Committee members, plus the Chairperson of the Australian Electoral Commission and the Australian Statistician, the latter of whom is a member of the Electoral Commission. As a final step in the redistribution, the augmented Electoral Commission has 60 days to consider the objections and makes a final proposal - on which there may or may not be hearings.
Electoral redistributions are so important to the fate of MPs and parties that they invariably produce objections from concerned members of the public - and from politicians and their parties, in particular. In the 2002-03 redistribution of Victoria, for instance, the augmented Electoral Commission received a number of objections to the proposed boundary between the Deakin and Menzies electorates. Most suggested that the existing Glenvale and Oban Road boundary between the electorates was preferable to the boundary proposed by the Redistribution Committee for Victoria. The augmented Electoral Commission acknowledged that this was indeed a clearer boundary between the two, and reverted to the old boundary in the final determination. (footnote 11)
By contrast, in the 2003 South Australian redistribution proposals it was announced that the South Australian electorate of Barker in the state’s South East region would be enlarged. Objections were lodged by Limestone Coast Tourism and the South East Local Government Association, both of which claimed that this was a detrimental step. They were concerned about the increased size of the electorate, and in particular the breaking down of the feeling of community of interest, with the associated difficulties for the local MP in attempting to service the electorate. (footnote 12 ) In response, the augmented Electoral Commission noted the concern as to Barker’s proposed size, but pointed out that a solution for one electorate could not be judged in isolation from the other South Australian electorates. Taking into account all variables, it expressed itself satisfied:
In the 2003 redistribution of Queensland electorates, the Redistribution Commission received an objection alleging political bias in the redistribution, about which it commented:
Such decisions by the Commission as these become part of the final determination issued by the augmented Electoral Commission, which ends the process. The final report is tabled in the Parliament for the information purposes only, for no appeal is possible to a final determination. Table S2.3 shows the time taken on the three redistributions of 2002-2003.
The Australian Electoral Commission informs those electors whose electorates have been changed, and maps are made available from Commission offices. The new boundaries are used immediately in the processing of new enrolments and changes to existing enrolments. However, if a by-election has to be held before the next general election, it is conducted on the old boundaries.
The Northern Territory as a special case
In the 2001 Commonwealth election Northern Territory electors voted in two House of Representatives electorates for the first time. The addition of the second electorate had come about due to an increase in the population of the Territory. Despite this, in the determination of February 2003 it was found that a slight population shift in the Territory would now mean the loss of the new seat. This became a matter of controversy, with many people calling for the determination to be set aside. (footnote 15)
The Parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters was asked to inquire into, and report on, the possibility of guaranteeing a minimum two House seats for each of the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory. The Committee recommended unanimously that the 2003 determination be set aside by government legislation to the extent that it applied to the Northern Territory. The Parliament duly passed legislation, but only to guarantee the Northern Territory its second electorate for the next federal election, which was held in October 2004. This legislation, therefore, will not affect future determinations. (footnote 16) To date, this is the only quota determination to have been set aside under the arrangements that have been in place since 1984.
One vote, one value?
The Australian Electoral Commission explains the redistribution process as ensuring ‘as nearly as practicable’, that each state and territory gains House of Representatives representation in proportion to their population, and that there are ‘as nearly as practicable’ the same number of electors in each state or territory’s electorates. (footnote 17) The precision of the Commission’s language is due to the impossibility of gaining true equality of House of Representatives electorates. There are various factors that make this so:
The impossibility of achieving equal-sized electorates across the nation is illustrated in table S2.4, which gives average enrolments for the states and territories at the time of the 2004 Commonwealth election.
It is therefore clear that regular redistributions ensure that electorate numbers within each state and territory will be ‘equal’ according to requirements of the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 (Cwlth), but they will vary a great deal across the nation.
The personal aspect of a redistribution
Most residents of a state are probably unaware of their state’s electorates being redistributed from time to time, but these events are of great moment to the political parties, to Members of Parliament and to prospective candidates. It has been said that apart from the actual elections themselves, ‘no process focuses the minds of those interested in politics more than the re-drawing of electoral boundaries’. (footnote 18) Redistributions can make or end parliamentary careers - as can be seen in the most recent redistributions.
As we have seen, the 2003 entitlement exercise determined that South Australia would lose one of its twelve electorates. Accordingly, the key decision by the Redistribution Committee was to abolish the electorates of Bonython and Wakefield, with most of their electors being absorbed into a new electorate of Wakefield. Bonython, an outer Adelaide electorate, was a safe Labor seat, (footnote 19) held by Martyn Evans; Wakefield, a rural electorate, was a safe Liberal seat held by the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Neil Andrew. The new electorate of Wakefield would be much more compact than the old electorate of that name, with a reasonably strong chance of being won by the Labor Party. This change effectively ended both parliamentary careers. Mr Andrew, a Liberal member of the House of Representatives since 1983, chose not to recontest in the 2004 election, while Mr Evans, a Commonwealth MP since 1994, lost Wakefield at the election.
In the 2002-03 Victoria redistribution, substantial changes were made to the adjoining rural electorates of McMillan, a marginal Labor electorate, held since 1998 by Christian Zahra, and Gippsland, a fairly safe National electorate held since 1983 by the Minister for Science, Peter McGauran. Despite many objections being lodged against the redistribution of these electorates, when the Victorian redistribution was completed Gippsland had become a much more marginal electorate, while McMillan had actually become a nominal Coalition electorate. Neither sitting member was pleased with the final redistribution details, for it seemed possible that both would lose their seats in Parliament. (footnote 20) In the 2004 election Mr McGauran retained his seat, but Mr Zahra lost his.
It is relevant to note here that only population and geographical factors play a part in the work of a Redistribution Committee: a redistribution’s ‘potential or real political implications are not considered in any way’ - as Messrs Andrew, Evans, McGauran and Zahra MP could attest. (footnote 21)
For many years, Australian redistributions could be the cause of political controversy, because governments could influence their timing to their advantage, and they could effectively veto any redistribution of which they disapproved. Since 1983-84, however, the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 (Cwlth)has mandated a fixed redistribution timetable, irrespective of the wishes of governments, and a set of proposed boundaries can no longer be vetoed or set aside. Redistributions will always be a time of great concern to political parties, and their impact can still cause unhappiness. (footnote 22) However, Australians can be satisfied that the national arrangements are both transparent and democratic in their impact.
1 Austin Ranney, Governing. An Introduction to Political Science, Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, 6th ed. 1993, p. 100. <Back
2 Franklin B. Sawvel (ed.), The Anas of Thomas Jefferson, De Capo, New York, 1970, p. 104. <Back
3 I am grateful for the assistance of my colleagues, Gerard Newman and Sarah Miskin, in the writing of this article. <Back
4 Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918, s.47. <Back
5 See Gerard Newman and Andrew Kopras, ‘2002-03 Redistribution of Commonwealth Electoral Boundaries’, Current Issues Brief No. 13, Parliamentary Library, Canberra, 2003-04 <http://www.aph.gov.au/library/pubs/CIB/2003-04/04cib13.pdf>. <Back
6 Australian Electoral Commission, Electoral Pocketbook, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra, 2002, p. 14. <Back
7 Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia, The Operation during the 1984 General Election of the 1983/84 Amendments to Commonwealth Electoral Legislation. A Report from the Joint Select Committee on Electoral Reform, December 1986, Report No. 2, Parliamentary Paper No. 1/1987, pp. xv-xvi. <Back
8 South Australia’s and Tasmania’s first MPs were elected at-large, that is, each state formed a large, multi-member electorate. The MPs elected in this way were known as Members for South Australia or Tasmania, respectively. The 1903 election saw South Australia with seven single-member electorates and Tasmania with five. Nine of the names chosen for these 12 electorates have been retained, which means that 48 of the 75 original state electorate names remain in use. <Back
9 Australian Electoral Commission, 2003 Redistribution South Australia into Electoral Divisions, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra, 2003, p. 23. <Back
10 Australian Electoral Commission, 2003 Proposed Redistribution of South Australia, Report of the Redistribution Committee, Canberra, 2003, para 60. <Back
11 Australian Electoral Commission, 2002-03 Redistribution Victoria into Electoral Divisions, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra, Objections to the proposed Divisions of Aston, Deakin, La Trobe and Menzies. <Back
12 Australian Electoral Commission, 2003 Redistribution South Australia into Electoral Divisions, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra, Public Objections nos. 4, 8. <Back
13 Australian Electoral Commission, 2003 Redistribution South Australia into Electoral Divisions, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra, 2003, p. 5. <Back
14 Australian Electoral Commission, 2003 Redistribution of Queensland into Electoral Divisions, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra, 2003, p. 5. <Back
15 Scott Bennett and Gerard Newman, ‘A Fair Deal for Territory Voters?’, Research Note No. 27, Parliamentary Library, Canberra, 2002-03 <http://www.aph.gov.au/library/pubs/rn/2002-03/03rn27.htm>. <Back
16 Rosemary Bell, ‘House of Representatives (Northern Territory Representation) Bill 2004’, Bills Digest No. 103, Parliamentary Library, Canberra, 2003-04 <http://www.aph.gov.au/library/pubs/bd/2003-04/04bd103.htm>.<Back
17 Australian Electoral Commission, ‘What is a redistribution?’, <http://www.aec.gov.au/_content/what/faqs/redistributions.htm#1>. <Back
18 Antony Green, ‘Where do you draw the lines?...’, New South Wales Parliamentary Library, Background Paper 1997/1. <Back
19 As described by the Australian Electoral Commission in Electoral Handbook, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra, 2002. <Back
20 Stuart Rintoul, ‘Frontline 04-Valley of the polls’, Australian, 7 August 2004. <Back
21 Australian Electoral Commission, ‘What criteria are used to draw the boundaries?’, <http://www.aec.gov.au/_content/what/faqs/redistributions.htm#5>. <Back
22 See, for example, statement from Australian Electoral Commissioner, 30 July 2004 <http://www.aec.gov.au/_content/what/media_releases/2004/july/statement.htm>. <Back
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