Friday, May 25, 2012

Pushing the boundary

I don't want to reinvent the wheel here, so I enthusiastically recommend Anthony Green's two pieces on the NSW redistribution, avaiable here and here.

Redistributions are always a sensitive topic.  Political careers can be all but wiped out in an instant when a seat is abolished, and the scramble for pre-selection in a new seat can be, to say the least, unedifying.

Anthony Green goes through what he believes the changes before the next election might be, and I'm not going to disagree with him.

What I did want to do was look at three implications that flow from this situation

The first is Gerrymandering. In short, Gerrymandering is the process of redistributing districts to your electoral advantage.

The NSW constitution demands the following:
However, the Parliamentary Electorates and Elections Act 1912 imposes an even sharper burden of 3%:
For obvious reasons, that 3% has over the years proved challenging for the redistributors. In electorates numbering approximately 50 000 voters, 3% equates to just 1 500 voters - a slim margin, to say the least.

NSW, unlike Queensland, has been spared the spectacle of electoral boundaries being constantly redrawn to the political advantage of the ruling party.  In NSW, the electoral boundaries are redrawn by the Electoral Commissioners:
This body is non-political, which means that the redistribution is (at least in theory) done with the interests of the voters at heart.

The legislation nominates the following considerations:
This should, hopefully, spare NSW the indignity of blatantly political decisions illegitimately influencing the result of elections.

The second issue is the redistribution process.  The Commissioners invite contributions from interested parties, and unsurprisingly the parties tend to have a view about how the distribution should be undertaken. You will also be shocked to hear that, contrary to all expectations, those suggestions tend to result in a political advantage for the party making the submission.

In any event, it is difficult to imagine that the commissioners are truly influenced by the submissions. The task of creating electoral boundaries that are not only within 3% of the correct proportion as well as taking account of sensible boundaries must be challenging enough without paying any regard to partisan submissions from the parties.

The only issue that the government has real control over (and the third issue I want to touch on) is the number of seats. This is a decision that continues to be made on political grounds, although the extent to which it can actually influence the actual result of an election is a little less certain.

As Anthony Green notes, the size of the legislative assembly has been reduced twice in recent years - from 109 to 99 in 1988, and from 99 to 93 in 1991.

It may be that the O'Farrell government, rather than chosing to take seats away from members, simply choses to increase the number of seats. This would create enormous headaches for the commissioners, but no doubt that is of little concern to the Coalition.

No doubt there are squadrons of Coalition staffers busy gaming out this issue, and then trying desperately to find a legitimate reason to justify the changes. Most likely there are a great number of MLA's in marginal seats sweating the result and campaigning internally for changes that would suit them.

Nothing like a behind-the-scene internal drama to convince politicians to take their eyes off actually governing. But I suppose that MLA's (who, let's be honest, just vote the way they are told) have to have something to keep themselves busy between elections.

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