Sunday, April 09, 2006

Australian Electoral System 101

Recently I was emailed by a US attorney seeking some information about Australia's electoral laws. My brief "for dummies" may be of interest to some, desperate high-school senior in Iowa with a term paper due tomorrow... In Australia, federal electoral boundaries (for the House of Reps: the Senate is elected by Single Transferable Vote PR statewide) are determined solely by federal law, while State electoral boundaries are determined solely under State law. Unlike the US, we see neither State legislators drawing Federal electoral maps, nor Federal judges re-drawing State electoral maps! The two processes are parallel rather than mixed. Also, State elections need not (indeed, under current Federal law, *must* not) be held on the same day as federal elections. And finally, we have only maximum parliamentary terms, not fixed election dates. A few chambers (federal Senate, both Victorian State houses) have terms that are *normally* fixed, but even then there are reserve provisions for a dissolution in case of protracted deadlock -- unlike the US. The practice before 1983 (at federal level) and before circa 1975 to circa 1990 (for the six States) was that the Parliament concerned enacted each "redistribution of electorates", as we call it, via a new Act. Usually the Act would have a Schedule setting out maps of the new boundaries, together with descriptions ("... and then along Smith Road for 2 miles 20 feet...", and so forth). At the same time, the actual work of drawing the proposed new boundaries was done by commissions that were usually reasonably non-partisan (or would be by US standards). Normally, three members, appointed by the Cabinet concerned, and usually were (or were required by law to be) [a] the chief electoral officer, [b] a judge of some kind, and [c] a public servant, usually from the surveyor-general's Dept or equivalent, ie someone who knew maps. However, their recommended redistribution was not self-executing. It could be amended by both Houses of Parliament, or even rejected by a single House (leaving the existing boundaries in place by default.) My understanding is that in some cases MPs would reject, amend, or strategically delay a commission's recommended changes so as to preserve their existing advantage. Australia has no federal Constitutional requirement of equal-population [federal or State] electorates within States, and the only federal Constitutional trigger for an intra-State House of Reps redistricting would be an alteration to the number of seats allocated to the State. We have censuses every 5 years, not 10, but since our Constitution requires House of Reps seats to be (constantly re-) distributed by population among States "according to the latest statistics of the Commonwealth", the High Court has interpreted this to require inter-State re-calculations every three to six years -- based on estimates if need be. Before about 1980, the Commonwealth and most States had statutory (not entrenched Constitutional) requirements that all electorates be within 20% of the average (in enrolled voters, not simple population) * when each new distribution was made * -- but usually failed to require later revisions, either at set intervals or when enough electoral districts were under 80% or over 120% of the average. In the past 20-30 years, the Commonwealth and all States have moved to make the process more transparent and self-executing. Main changes are:-- (a) membership of the boundary commission is usually fixed by law (ex officio), with little room for Cabinets to appoint "on side" public officials (b) In most cases, the allowable variation has been reduced to 10% of the Statewide average. However, the Tasmanian upper house, and both West Australian houses, have wide variations in voter numbers among rural and urban districts. The High Court of Australia has twice rejected arguments that there is an implied right under the Federal Constitution to cast votes of equal value in Federal (1975) or State (1996) elections. Queensland (the only unicameral State) formerly had an extremely unequal system, but in 1990-92 this was replaced with a compromise system whereby, for every district over 100,000 square kilometers in area, the commission may treat up to 1% of its area (in km2) as "phantom voters" to boost its notional voter population and bring it within the normal 10% variation. This currently affects only 5 districts out of 89; each is larger in area than many a European nation; and they usually split either 3-2 or 2-3 between Labor and the conservative coalition (being centred around farming or mining areas) so the former "Queensland gerrymander" [sic], so controversial 20-30 years ago, has dropped below the political radar since 1992. (c) a new distribution is required every (usually) seven years, or when a third of all electorates are under 90% or over 110% (or if the State gains or loses seats). In some jurisdictions (NSW, South Australia and the Australian Capital Territory), the basic electoral principles are entrenched, so they can't be changed without a referendum. But even when they rely on ordinary statute, the overall trend has been very much to reduce the immediate control of the Parliament (which, in Australia, also means the Cabinet) over the precise location of electoral boundaries. The impartiality of the commissions is normally accepted on all sides. Political parties submit their own proposals for revised boundaries (which the commissioners take into account), and each party usually nominates its opponents' held electorates for abolition! Because we have compulsory enrollment and compulsory voting, so that turnout and results are not affected by weather etc, it is often easy to predict which party a given distribution will favour. Nonetheless there has been almost no criticism that I'm aware of, of the commissioners as biased. On the other hand, there have been complaints that "neutral" criteria can be rigged to favour a particular side. Eg, in South Australia the Commissioners are required to try to arrange electorates so that (inter alia) a party with 50% of the votes will win a majority of seats. The SA commission has found the safest way to ensure this is to create a lot of marginal districts. Thus SA has largely seen "windscreen-wiper" landslides in the past 15 years. SA in 1993 was an extreme case (a 37-10 majority, which is more unusual in an Australian State than a US one -- our States tend to be more evenly balanced in voting terms between Labor and the conservatives, with no equivalent of a "Solid South" or "Red/ Blue") and their election 2 weeks ago was, from memory, shaping up to be nearly as extreme. As another example, in 1991 the Labor and Liberal Parties in New South Wales clashed bitterly over whether the State Legislative Assembly (Lower House) should have 91 seats or 99. Reading about it in Queensland newspapers, I couldn't work out why the heated debate until someone explained that the "backroom boys" had done the math[s], probably on a computer. With 91 seats, the average voters per electorate would be more than with 99 seats, which would mean that districts based on regional towns would pull in more or less of the surrounding rural hinterland, which would favour either Labor or Liberal ... I forget which, but it would favour one side! All Australian parliamentary chambers bar two have electoral districts with a uniform seat number. The Tasmanian lower house and Victorian upper house have 5-seat districts; the NSW and South Australian upper houses (like the Federal Senate) have Statewide electorates (NSW - 42 seats, 21 filled each election; SA - 22 seats per State, 11 filled each election; Senate - 12 seats per State, 6 filled each election). The ACT Assembly and the West Australian upper house mix 5-seat and 7-seat districts. All other chambers have single-seat electorates. With the ACT and WA cases, the relevant legislation specifies broadly which regions shall have 7-seaters (the most densely populated) and which regions have 5. NSW used STV-PR briefly in the 1930s, around the same time that New York City did, and the NSW Act said something along the lines of "there shall be 15 three-seat electorates, in rural areas, and 9 five-seat electorates, in urban areas". [Caveat: I'm generalizing very widely and impressionistically here, often from memory...]