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State election fairness "not practicable" without wholesale change

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A constitutional requirement to provide a “fair” election result that allows the party with a statewide majority to form government is almost impossible to realise, the panel charged with re-drawing South Australia’s electoral boundaries has been told.

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The State Liberals are demanding changes to the methodology used to determine electoral boundaries, and will petition the Electoral Districts Boundaries Commission, which sat for the first time yesterday, hearing evidence that the charter under which it operates is “simply not practicable”.

Chaired by Supreme Court Judge Ann Vanstone, the commission is charged with examining the state’s political map after a 2014 election that saw the Liberal Party garner 53 per cent of the two-party preferred vote – but fall short of Government.

Submissions were tabled, including a research paper commissioned by the panel, assessing the methodology they employ to redistribute electoral boundaries.

The paper, by University of Adelaide academic Clement Macintyre, argued that “the terms of the constitution make virtually impossible demands” of the commission, which is bound by a “Fairness Clause” to attempt to engineer a result that will see the party with a two-party majority form Government.

He suggests alternatives, from a complete re-drawing of the electoral map, to reshaping it to create more safe Labor seats in the metropolitan area, or diminish Liberal-held ones, which could put the squeeze on incumbents such as Deputy Opposition Leader Vickie Chapman in Bragg.

The problem is that the charter as currently applied is simply not practicable

The Liberal Party says it plans to lodge a submission “calling for fairness”.

SA Liberal President Steve Murray told InDaily in a statement: “We acknowledge that the Commission has a difficult job to do.”

However, “we will ask that the Commission to review the methodology used for boundary redistribution, given the process used in the past has shown to be flawed”.

“The Liberal Party will put a strong legal case forward,” Murray said.

“We want a fair and just outcome for all South Australians [and] it is only fair that the people of SA are governed by the party who attracts more than 50 per cent of the majority vote.”

However, in three of the six elections since the Fairness Clause was introduced, the party with less than 50 per cent of the two-party vote has won Government in SA – and every time that party has been the ALP.

Jay Weatherill casts his vote at Alberton Primary School in 2014. Photo: AAP/David Mariuz

Jay Weatherill casts his vote at Alberton Primary School in 2014. Photo: David Mariuz, AAP.

Macintyre writes that such an anomaly “tends to happen more often in SA than elsewhere”, assigning the discrepancy to a “propensity of South Australians to elect a small number of independent MPs” in a relatively small parliament, and the unpredictable behaviour of some of those independents.

Five nominally conservative MPs have formed alliances with Labor since it formed Government in 2002.

Macintrye finds that the Fairness Clause, introduced in 1991 after the Bannon Government was re-elected in 1989 despite losing the two-party vote, “cannot allow for the decisions that elected members might take after the election”.

Macintyre also blames “a distinctive political demography and the nature of political campaigns that see a small number of metropolitan seats targeted in very particular and telling ways”.

“Perhaps the only way to minimise future ‘wrong’ electoral outcomes would be to undertake a major re-throw of all – or at least the metropolitan – boundaries,” Macintyre writes.

But, he argues, “even starting with a blank map of the state”, the subsequent process of setting new boundaries designed to engineer a fair result would still rely on the same methodological approach the commission has used since 1991 – although he argues that approach has been “meticulous”.

“It should be said that the way it approaches the tasks of the regular redistributions is fundamentally sound,” he argues.

“The Commission can properly argue that it has carried out its charter, as the Act provides, ‘as far as practicable’… the problem is that the charter as currently applied is, in many respects, simply not practicable.”

He argues it is “not a reasonable conclusion” that there is an “exclusive two-party bloc” in SA politics, given “independents are regularly elected and minor parties have captured approximately 20 per cent of the primary vote at each of the last five elections”.

“In essence it could be argued that the fairness clause assumes that only the Liberal and Labor parties should receive ‘fair’ outcomes,” he writes.

“If the purpose of the election was the win the highest share of the [two-party] vote across the state, then clearly parties would shift their resources and would campaign differently.”

While not advocating a particular solution, Macintyre suggests a range of alternatives, including “revisiting the Commission’s reluctance to make larger changes”.

“The Commission has generally attempted to rectify population imbalances and respond to fairness issues with minimum changes,” he writes.

However, “a full and comprehensive review of all boundaries might be of some use”.

He says a “more modest proposal” would be “to consider significant boundary shifts just in metropolitan Adelaide”, where Labor won a glut of key marginals.

“This provides the Commission with an opportunity,” says Macintyre.

“If there was a significant movement of boundaries in the metropolitan area that generated more safe Labor seats, the result would be to marginalise those other Labor seats from which votes have been moved.

“At the same time it would act to strengthen any Liberal metropolitan seats from which Labor votes have been taken.”

Another approach floated “might be to re-draw the boundaries of the Liberals’ very safe metropolitan and peri-metropolitan seats so that they become more marginal and the displaced Liberal votes be used to increase the marginality of Labor-held seats”.

“This would go some way to offsetting the ‘wasted’ Liberal rural votes,” Macintyre argues.

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