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Labor launches unprecedented court action in electoral boundaries battle

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EXCLUSIVE: The South Australian Labor Party has launched a historic Supreme Court challenge to the most dramatic shake-up of the state’s electoral boundaries in a generation, in a move that could throw the 2018 state election contest into disarray.

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The Electoral Districts Boundaries Commission this month handed down a landmark final report that could effectively hand the Liberals a seven-seat majority if they replicate the statewide vote of around 53 per cent they won at the last election.

Four current Labor seats – Newland, Mawson, Colton and Elder – were redesignated as nominal Liberal electorates, in a move which saw the Opposition claim vindication of its oft-critiqued campaign strategy.

But InDaily can reveal Labor lodged papers for an appeal against the commission’s findings late yesterday.

In an email sent to party members this morning, state secretary Reggie Martin says he has “lodged an appeal in the Supreme Court of South Australia against the commission’s redistribution”.

The case will hinge on the commission’s interpretation of the “one vote, one value” principle enshrined in the state’s Constitution Act.

The law holds that “whenever an electoral redistribution is made” it must be on the principle “that the number of electors comprised in each electoral district must not vary from the electoral quota by more than the permissible tolerance” of 10 per cent.

But the commission, chaired by Justice Ann Vanstone, determined that did not mean that “equality of numbers within the parameter” was “a goal in itself”.

“While it enshrines the one vote, one value principle, it does so only to the extent that the commission is not permitted to make a redistribution that would have the effect of creating any district where the total number of electors was outside the 10 per cent tolerance at the relevant date,” it found, arguing that the act “says nothing about how the commission is to conduct a redistribution within that tolerance”.

“By providing for a 10 per cent tolerance, parliament has recognised that equality of elector numbers in electoral districts is impractical,” the commission determined.

“The commission takes the view that [the Constitution Act] does not require each electoral district to have the same number of electors or require the commission to keep the numbers within each district as close as possible to the quota.”

But in his email, Martin vehemently disagreed with the commission’s interpretation, saying: “I will ask the court to endorse the hard-won principle of one vote, one value as the foundation of democratic fairness in the South Australian electoral system.”

Any shift away from this principle will mean that voters in some electorates will have a greater say than others as to who the state’s elected representatives will be

“The ALP suffered under a gerrymander for more than 30 years in this state and fought a long and hard battle to achieve the principle of one vote, one value,” he wrote.

“Equality in the ballot booth finally came when the Dunstan Government was able to enshrine this principle in the state’s Constitution in 1975. One vote, one value has been entrenched in the Constitution ever since and it requires a referendum to alter it.

“Every Boundaries Commission since 1991 has treated this principle as fundamental to its method of redistributing the state’s electoral districts boundaries.

“This commission has taken a different approach.”

Martin said “any shift away from [the one vote, one value] principle will mean that voters in some electorates will have a greater say than others as to who the state’s elected representatives will be”.

“This is something the Labor Party cannot accept without challenge… one vote, one value is more than a slogan; it is a principle that says that every person’s voice should be equal in a democratic society,” he wrote.

“This principle is too important not to fight for.”

The ALP previously outlined its opposition to the commission’s interpretation in its response to its draft report in August, pointing out it was a departure from the conclusions of previous redistributions.

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Labor’s state secretary Reggie Martin. Photo: Nat Rogers / InDaily

“In the past, the commission has considered it appropriate to maintain the number of electors within each electorate as close in number to the quota as possible,” the party argued, noting that the current commission instead saw the 10 per cent tolerance as a tool to satisfy the “fairness” objective of ensuring a party with a statewide majority received a similar majority on the floor of parliament.

But Labor argued it was unfair that “ALP seats on average will have more electors than Liberal Party seats”, because it implied the value of the voters in the smaller seats was worth more than those in more populous ones.

“Further, the greater the number of electorates in which this occurs where the electors in those electorates favour one political party over another, the more the ‘one vote, one value’ principle is diminished,” Labor’s earlier submission argued.

It’s expected this point will now be forensically contested in a Supreme Court hearing in the new year, with a date likely to be set this week.

Even if an appeal is successful, it would not necessarily preclude the commission redesignating the same number of Labor seats to the Liberal side of the pendulum.

It would mean, however, that it could not use the 10 per cent quota tolerance as a mechanism for achieving a more representative electoral balance.

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It is a high-risk gambit for Labor, as the court’s judgement – one way or another – will set a precedent that can be used by all future boundary reviews.

The boundaries commission’s report, handed down a little over a week ago, has already set in train preparations for the 2018 election, with three Liberals announcing their retirements and the party calling for candidate nominations in 34 of the state’s 47 lower house seats.

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