Earlier this month new electoral boundaries were announced for South Australia. The Liberals got excited and called for nominations and new blood. They look a chance. But no one, not even Greg Sheridan, is betting their house on it.
SA has a bicameral system of Westminster-style government, wherein governments are formed by that party which can get a majority of voting members in the lower house. In the lower House of Assembly, there are 47 seats/electorates/districts with MHAs elected on a preferential compulsory voting system.
Until 1965 there was deliberate rural over-representation, country seats had fewer voters, and the LCL ruled with a minority of popular votes. After much Labor agitation, the Liberals, suiciding, altered this abruptly to a fairer system and lost office in 1970. Labor continued to win, mostly, and in 1989 did so with a minority of popular votes.
The defeated Liberals then suggested a reform to ensure the party winning a majority of votes formed government. After a referendum the Constitution was changed in 1991, to instruct an Electoral Districts Boundaries Commission, acting between the four-year elections, to re-distribute boundaries such that the party winning a two party preferred majority vote at the previous election would win office next time.
This could not, of course, be done, as the report in 2016 goes to some pains to point out in its introduction, before going on to then try and do it. The TPP vote is only notional, and people change their vote between elections, so the system could not really achieve what was intended. Indeed, several elections, including the 2010 and 2014 elections, were won by Labor with a notional minority of TPP votes. Short of introducing a New Zealand/German type system of geographic seats in only one chamber, with a ‘top-up list’ based on popular votes, the Westminster system does not allow for it.
SA’s population is 1.7 million, of which 1.3 million live in Adelaide.
Of the 47 seats, nine may be viewed as country electorates, of which eight vote Liberal (Frome at present Independent) and the one based on Whyalla and Roxby Downs, Giles, votes Labor. This is unlikely to change much, unless Whyalla shrinks further or reacts to impending demise by rejecting Labor. The other country seats ‘lock up’ many Liberal votes in ‘unnecessarily large’ majorities and largely account for its recent defeats despite popularity.
There are four ‘inner country’ seats that generally vote Liberal: Heysen, Kavel, Schubert and Taylor. These are subject to some Labor pressure as the city has expanded and they are exposed to Xenophon’s X-team encroachments more recently.
The other thirty-four seats are in metropolitan Adelaide, where the majority of the SA population lives. In general, the suburbs on the foothills to the east of the city, the eastern suburbs, are more salubrious and expensive and vote Liberal/right. There are eleven or twelve of these depending on the boundaries of the day and other things.
The seats that form the basis of Labor’s electoral support and power run from the industrial north of Elizabeth to the industrial south, in a northeast to south-west corridor through the western suburbs. There are a few exceptions here, caused by the attractions of geographic proximity to the CBD or the coast. So Labor has about 22 of these seats it can contest and seriously hope to win. The Liberals only won 12 metropolitan seats in 2014, and only 4 of them safely.
In an Assembly of 47, this means that each major party can realistically expect to contest with some hope, about twenty-eight seats and will need twenty-four of those to form government. The resulting battlefield or marginal seats are those, about half a dozen, with the narrowest winning margins. Of course, there will be surprises as voting patterns change, campaigns evolve and candidates alter.
Further, the erosion of two-party dominance and the recent emergence of Independents and several smaller but substantial parties has created more instability, and arguably, greater democracy. It has also made the Boundaries Commission’s task even more impossible.
The 2016 Boundaries Commission Report was presented 7 December 2016 after the appeal process had been completed. The 2012 report, on which the 2014 election had been fought, had been widely criticised. The Labor Party had won that 2014 election with about 47 per cent of the notional TPP vote, a result the Commission had been established to prevent, but had not.
The criticism was to a degree warranted, in that it had produced a system of boundaries in which, if all proceeded as expected, the overall result would hinge on one seat. This was, of course, logically, always the case. But in this instance, it could be probably identified as the inner, southwestern suburban seat of Ashford at the northern end of Anzac Highway. The Labor Party campaigned heavily there with all the resources that government allowed, and won it narrowly, thereby saving the government.
Labor then picked up the support of an independent (Frome) and a Liberal defector (a former leader!), both rewarded with ministerial office, and formed government. It later won a by-election in Fisher, after another independent died, and from 47 per cent of the two-party preferred vote had cobbled a handy majority government. The 2016 Boundaries Commissions Report was to address these issues.
The Commission reported that, by election, share of primary vote, share of TPP votes and seats won, first Labor than Liberal, the following had been calculated from a submission by Clem Macintyre of Adelaide University:
After lengthy discussion, the Commission allocated boundaries that it said would have won 26 seats in its own right for the Liberals if the 2014 voting patterns were repeated in 2018 (Frome independent). It did this by changing boundaries and delivering four seats to the Liberals: Elder, Colton, Mawson and Newland. However, one other seat, Fisher now Hurtle Vale, might move (as it already had as noted above) the other way.
Elder is a south-west suburban marginal seat towards Flinders University as a major employer and indeed activity. Colton is a beachside western suburbs seat, with some very expensive real estate, held for almost a decade by the former mayor of Adelaide, Steve Condous, for the Liberals. Mawson is an inner rural seat taking in the extreme south of the Fleurieu Peninsula, opposite and including Kangaroo Island. Newland is in the northeast outer dormitory suburbs of Adelaide with little industry. Hurtle Vale (Fisher) is an outer suburban seat sprawling east from the main south road to the south coast, only won by Labor in a recent by-election following the death of the sitting independent. Ashford, which would presumably stay in play, changed some boundaries and became Badcoe.
There were some boundary adjustments in other seats designed mostly to equalise their size, in terms of numbers of voters, but generally favouring Liberals. So it seems that the battlefield for the 2018 election has been determined. It is concentrated in six suburban seats and a country electorate based on industrial Whyalla where imminent economic collapse is concentrating minds alarmingly. Frome, presently Independent, might go back to the Liberals.
The boundary changes actually gave the Liberals notionally 27 seats using 2014 voting patterns. To win four seats from the Liberals and so retain government the ALP would require the following swings: Newland, 0.1 per cent, Adelaide, 2.0, Black, 2.6, Mawson, 3.2, and to improve its majority Gibson, 3.2 and Hartley 3.3. To win more than 27 seats the Liberals would require King, 1.4, Hurtle Vale 1.7, Lee, 2.6.
If the 2018 election were to be a ‘dead heat’ with each major party getting 50 per cent TPP, the Liberals would still win with 24 seats according to the Commission.
These boundaries, as described, represent a reasonably level playing field, modestly favouring the Liberals, for the 2018 state election. It remains to be seen whether the Liberals have the determination, capacity and leadership needed to wrest power from a green-left Labor government in a stagnant economy.
The Liberals have long said they lose elections on unfair boundaries. The Labor counter allegation is that the Liberals do not campaign effectively. 2018 will test these theories.
Bob Catley, who was a professor and federal Labor MP, now sails quite a lot.