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The myth of the undemocratic SA election


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It is now more than 100 days since the state election and the myth continues that the result was an affront to democracy because it didn’t reflect the two-party preferred vote.

Yesterday, Liberal leader Steven Marshall called for a statutory inquiry into the electoral system, saying “we need to have a discussion about how we can improve the electoral system in South Australia so that when South Australians vote for a party to form government, they get it”.

He even accepted a petition from Left-wing ginger group, GetUp, which claimed: “For over a decade, the SA election system has consistently delivered the opposite result to what the majority of voters want.”

Apart from the fact that this statement is just plain wrong (the 2006 election was a landslide victory for Labor), and that our system is based on government being formed by a majority of seats – not a majority of votes – a closer look at the statistics reveals the extent of the myth-making.

Electors voted for a majority of conservative members – and that is exactly what they got.

The argument is running along these lines: the Liberals won the two-party preferred vote 53-47, but failed to win a majority of seats, so therefore the electoral system is broken and undemocratic.

Critics of the result are correct to point out that in the federal sphere a vote of that magnitude usually leads to a landslide (although the John Howard-led  Liberals managed to win one election with a minority of the two-party preferred vote).

It’s also understandable that the Liberals and their many supporters in the community are frustrated: South Australia continually throws up results like this.

But if we’re playing the two-party preferred game, the fact is that the result in South Australia more closely reflects seats won than the same equation applied to the federal election result.

You wouldn’t know it from aggrieved commentary, but the South Australia Electoral Boundaries Commission drew an electoral map that produced a result where the number of seats won was finely calibrated to the final two-party preferred vote.

They’re closer to geniuses than dunces.

The system delivered conservative voters their chosen candidate in 24 of the 47 House of Assembly seats. That tally includes conservative candidate Bob Such in Fisher and independent Geoff Brock in Frome – both were elected with strong conservative support.

Labor candidates won 23 seats.

If you translate the seats won into percentages, the mythmaking becomes clear.

Conservatives – counting Such and Brock – won 51.06 per cent of the seats, while Labor candidates won 48.93 per cent.

That is reasonably close to the two-party preferred vote – far from a bad result for the boundaries commission, especially when you consider the huge majority of votes that the Liberals pick up in South Australian rural seats.

At the 2013 federal election, the Coalition won with a two-party preferred vote of 53.49 per cent, yet it picked up 60 per cent of the seats.

Labor’s 46.51 per cent two-party preferred vote translated into about 37 per cent of the seats.

No-one squealed about the discrepancies in that result.

So if we’re using the overall two-party preferred result as our ultimate guide to the “will of the people”, then, compared to the federal poll, the South Australian tally of seats is a much more democratic result.

Frome and Fisher remain conservative-voting seats – it’s just that the Liberal Party shot itself in the foot in both. Firstly, they alienated former Liberal Government minister Such; then former leader Rob Kerin made a bad timing call with his retirement and handed the seat of Frome to Brock.

Neither situation is the fault of the Electoral Boundaries Commission, and nor can they be expected to adjust the boundaries to ensure that “real” Liberals win.

University of Adelaide politics professor Clem Macintyre agrees the argument that the election result was “undemocratic” is overblown.

He says the relatively small number of seats in our Lower House magnifies the influence of independents, who have often propped up parties in power.

The boundaries commission did a fair job with the previous redistribution, he believes.

“They didn’t get it far out,” he said.

“They have drawn 24 Liberal seats and 23 Labor seats – the Liberals let two go, I would argue through their own behaviour.

“If the Liberals want genuine voting reform that allocates seats on the way people vote (overall), they need proportional representation – and then they would never again have a majority in their own right.”

Election analyst William Bowe, writing in Crikey earlier this year, has a similar take.

“Even if the redistribution had tortured the electoral map to strong-arm more seats to the Liberal side of the pendulum, there is no guarantee it would have achieved the desired result,” he wrote.

“Conceiving of electoral fairness in two-party terms requires that independent-held seats be classified as belonging to one major party or the other — and given the normal orientation of Geoff Brock’s seat of Frome and Bob Such’s seat of Fisher, the election has indeed returned a ‘conservative’ majority, if only barely.”

The result is also influenced by marginal seat campaigning. The Liberals failed to pick up the seemingly unloseable seat of Ashford, and didn’t make a dent in Newland.

Win either of these seats and the Liberals’ result in terms of overall seats won would have almost exactly matched the two-party preferred vote.

“I have said this to the Liberals and they grind their teeth and acknowledge it’s right – 316 votes in Newland would have given the Liberals the seat and Brock would have gone with the Liberals,” Macintyre said.

Macintyre says he’s been pondering the electoral map since the election and can’t see too many options for shaving Labor’s margins in the city electorates, without producing bizarrely shaped electorates stretching from the city to the country.

The most feasible opportunity, he believes, is in the southern suburbs seat of Morphett, held by the Liberals, which could shed some strong Liberal areas to the neighbouring Labor marginals of Elder and Ashford.

South Australian law requires the boundaries commission to ensure, as far is practicable, that redistributions are “fair”, so that if candidates of a particular party attract more than 50 per cent of the vote, they will win the majority of seats and form government.

This provision is unique to South Australia – but it’s not the only unique part of our political landscape.

The other unique factors are the repeated failure of the Liberal Party to win suburban seats it unquestionably should, and to regularly lose safe seats to independent conservative candidates, and Labor’s utter failure to garner support in regional South Australia

If democracy is in strife in this state, it’s not because the current system is being maladministered.

The real problem – for those obsessed with the two-party preferred numbers – is that neither major party can craft a platform and message that appeals to voters across the city-country divide.

The interesting question now will be what alternative system Marshall will propose, and it seems likely that he will – at some stage – push for significant reform.

Given some of the wackier models being thrown around (including “top ups” – essentially seat-less MPs who are there simply to make up the numbers for the two-party preferred winning party), it could be a case of “be careful what you wish for”.






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