15 January 2004

NSW electoral distribution under the microscope

The independent body set up to draw the new boundaries is the Electoral Districts Commission. The current review is chaired by retired judge the Honourable Jerrold Cripps QC and by statute the commission also includes the NSW Electoral Commissioner John Wasson, and the State's surveyor-general Warwick Watkins.

The overriding task of the commissioners is to ensure equality of enrolment between electorates. Enrolment in all new electorates must be within a 10 per cent of the state average. A second tighter restriction also applies to projected enrolments. Boundaries must be drawn so that at the time of the next election, all new electorates will have predicted enrolment within 3 per cent of the average.

After meeting these numerical restrictions, the commissioners must take into account community of interests arguments, including economic, social and regional interests; means of communication and travel within the electoral district; the physical features and area of the electoral district; mountain and other natural boundaries; and the boundaries of the existing electoral districts.

In New South Wales, the state's electoral geography offers huge scope for parties to gain political advantage. No other state has industrial centres the size of Newcastle and Wollongong. Probably no other city has the clear class voting lines of Sydney, where the hilly and leafy Liberal voting North Shore contrasts markedly with the generally flat and Labor voting seats south of the harbour. The state also has significant mining towns like Lithgow, Broken Hill and Cessnock that lie in the middle of territory that would otherwise be tough for Labor to win.

Indeed, both sides have their gallows humour about the state's electoral geography. Labor people quip their job is always made easier by the tendency of Liberal voters in Sydney to all want to live together on the North Shore. Liberal and National Party officials sometimes wistfully ponder how much easier life would be if they could just get rid of Broken Hill, Lithgow and Queanbeyan.

Redistributions are always fun to watch. The NSW constitution requires a redistribution whenever it is needed to ensure voting equality. The tight rules mean that the Labor and Coalition submissions are actually only 1 seat apart, but I doubt that will prevent the usual catfight and eventually the supreme court may have to resolve the matter.

Tasmania has a fairer system where each federal electorate returns 5 members elected by STV, but that reform is not going to happen in NSW any time soon.

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