Fair electoral boundaries an "impossible challenge"

Friday, 21 March 2014

Politics and law experts at the University of Adelaide say there are many problems with the current "fairness" provisions of the South Australian electoral system, but these are not wholly to blame for last weekend's close election result.

The fairness provision for electoral boundaries was introduced in 1991 following successive years of unbalanced election results benefiting Liberal governments in the 1950s and Labor governments in the 1980s.

The reforms in the 1990s attempted to bring independence into the system, with the formation of an Electoral Districts Boundaries Commission headed by a Supreme Court justice. The Commission is required to redraw the boundaries after each election to achieve fairness.

"Electoral systems, like beauty, are often in the eyes of the beholder," says University of Adelaide Professor of History and Politics, Professor Clem Macintyre.

"The result of last Saturday's election has prompted some people to question the wisdom of those 1991 reforms, including members of the Liberal Party who may be feeling hard done by following the election result. Winning a majority of the primary vote but not a majority of the seats is not a great outcome, although this situation was considerably worse prior to the reforms of the '90s," he says.

Professor John Williams, Dean of Law at the University of Adelaide, says: "The challenge for any model is to translate diversity in the community to parliament.

"The impossible challenge for the Commission is that the boundaries that are being redrawn to accommodate the results of the most recent election will, by their very nature, be used at a different time in the political cycle. So they're always running behind the times. The methodology of the Commission also reflects the intention of the Parliament in 1991 and not the complex reality of 2014. So for instance, the Commission is required to calculate the two party-preferred votes by essentially excluding independents and minor parties, which now play a much bigger role."

Professor Macintyre says: "Modern media elections are punctuated by gaffes, marginal seat campaigns, brilliant strategies or toe-curling disasters. None of which the Commission can predict two to three years out from the election as it attempts to draw the boundaries in accordance with the constitutional requirements.

"There are many things to commend the 'fairness' provision, yet for all its worthy ambition the Commission does not have a constitutional crystal ball. It's evident that the fairness envisaged by our Parliamentarians in 1991 may not be what it is cracked up to be in 2014. Having said that, our recent election result, with just a few percentage points in it, is a much more satisfactory outcome than elections of the past where a party could receive only 37% of the primary vote and still win the election.

"The Liberals' disappointment and frustration with the weekend's result is understandable, but perhaps they should be looking at their own campaign strategy and why two safe Liberal seats are in the hands of independents, rather than focusing on the now constitutionally entrenched fairness provisions," he says.


Contact Details

Professor Clem Macintyre
Email: clement.macintyre@adelaide.edu.au
Head, School of History & Politics
Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences
The University of Adelaide
Business: +61 8 8313 5601
Mobile: 0432 977 055

Professor John Williams
Email: john.williams@adelaide.edu.au
Dean of Law School
Director, South Australian Law Reform Institute
The University of Adelaide

Mr David Ellis
Email: david.ellis@adelaide.edu.au
Website: http://www.adelaide.edu.au/news/
Deputy Director, Media and Corporate Relations
External Relations
The University of Adelaide
Business: +61 8 8313 5414
Mobile: +61 (0)421 612 762