Constitution (Permissible Tolerance) Amendment Bill

Wednesday June 03, 2020



Introduction and First Reading

Mr BELL (Mount Gambier) (10:32): Obtained leave and introduced a bill for an act to amend the Constitution Act 1934. Read a first time.

Second Reading

Mr BELL (Mount Gambier) (10:33): I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

I am pleased to move the Constitution (Permissible Tolerance) Amendment Bill 2020. This bill amends the Constitution Act 1935 to modify the application of the permissible tolerance of 10 per cent for electoral redistributions. The bill does this by giving a weighting to electoral districts that have a land area of 100,000 square kilometres or more in the calculation of enrolment at the date of redistribution. This is modelled on a similar provision in the Queensland Electoral Act 1992 and Western Australia's Electoral Act 1907, although I point out that my bill is more restricted. I will return to this later. Because the provisions of the Constitution Act that are amended by this bill are constitutionally entrenched, a second bill enabling it to be put in a referendum to the people of South Australia will be contingently moved if this bill is passed.

Why am I moving this bill? I move it for very simple reasons: in the most recent hearings of the Electoral District Boundaries Commission, which has responsibility for conducting the periodic redistribution process, we have seen speculation emerge about another country seat in the Far North being abolished. The simple maths is that, in a 47-member lower house, if the population of the country does not keep up with a population of Adelaide country representation declines. Unsurprisingly, the Labor Party has made that point in its submission. I quote the submission of Mr Adrian Tisato made on behalf of the Labor Party:

16. Critically, 5 regional electoral districts—Flinders, Giles, Stuart, Frome and Chaffey—suffer from a problematic combination of extremely low (and likely declining) elector numbers and a very limited capacity to accommodate piecemeal adjustments, by reason of their geography and the fact they border one another.

17. A central question that the Commission must therefore consider is whether the numbers of electors in these regions are now so low that it is necessary or appropriate to consolidate them into four districts—and to alleviate the problem of significantly above quota metropolitan electorates by creating a new district or districts elsewhere.

It sounds like a principled argument, doesn't it? But we should not forget it is also an argument based on the Labor Party's electoral interests. It may be legally arguable, although we do not yet know what the redistribution commission thinks of it, but it is obvious Labor's motives are not those of a disinterested observer—and I will return to this point.

Still, assessed solely against the principle of one vote, one value, the abolition of a country seat and the creation of an additional metropolitan seat could seem to be the fair and right outcome. After all, it is arguably consistent with the parameters which underlie the redistribution process, a process which is designed to ensure that, as far as practicable, the voting population is evenly spread across the 47 seats in the House of Assembly.

The problem, of course, is that this means the country seats that are left will become physically larger and keep getting larger every time another seat is lost. Inevitably, this renders the necessary interaction between voters and their elected representatives and the democratic contest between candidates ineffective or of lower quality than that which is available in the city. With apologies to Geoffrey Blaney, this may be characterised as a contemporary manifestation of what he once described as 'the tyranny of distance'. For country voters, the tyranny sometimes feels all too real.

Too often, country voters feel not just ignored but as though they are second-class citizens in their own state. Losing another country vote on North Terrace will only reinforce this perception. Left unaddressed, this democratic deficit can only cause great damage to regional and metropolitan communities alike and to the good government of our state. The truth is that the regions and the city depend on each other.

Much of the export wealth of our state is generated through South Australia's country hinterland and outback. Agriculture, mining, tourism and renewable energy are all major wealth generators for South Australia. All of them rely on country workers and country businesses working with city workers and city businesses for supplies, logistics, services and all manner of other supports. South Australia's particular geography and population spread have made electoral redistributions a confounding issue for much of our political history, particularly as a rural share of the state's population has seen accelerated decline in more recent decades.

While the democratic deficit country voters confront in South Australia is not unique, it is particularly pronounced. South Australia is the fourth largest of Australia's states and territories. At 993 square kilometres, we occupy 12.7 per cent of the country's land mass. To put that into context, South Australia is larger in land area than 188 sovereign nations—roughly 97 per cent of the members of the United Nations—but of course much of the state is arid and sparsely settled. Our share of national population is considerably lower than our share of national territory, at only 6.9 per cent. That is just over half a percentage share of land area.

Unsurprisingly, this means overall population density is very low. On average, there are only 1.62 persons for every square kilometre of our state. Only Western Australia and the Northern Territory have a lower population density, at 0.89 and 0.16 persons per square kilometre. Nationally, Australia's population density is 3.3 persons per square kilometre.

To put that in an international context, no independent sovereign nation anywhere in the world has a population density as low as that of our state. The closest is Mongolia with 1.92 people per square kilometre. When you consider that close to 80 per cent of the population lives in the metropolitan area, this means population density outside Adelaide, particularly in the outback areas to the north, is much lower again.

Turning now to the operation of the bill, South Australia's redistribution process is set out in part 5 of the Constitution Act. This part was introduced following the passage of the Constitution Act Amendment Act (No. 5) 1975. From 1991 to 2017, the redistribution was required to attempt to ensure that the party with a group of candidates that won the majority of the two-party preferred vote would win enough seats in the house to form government. This was often termed the 'fairness clause'.

In practice, this clause proved extremely difficult to apply, as experienced by repeated reports of redistribution commissions and sustained academic and media commentary over the years. Given the relative frequency of minority governments in South Australia—six out of 13 terms since the redistribution process was first implemented—this is not surprising. Section 77(1) of the act sets out the basic requirements for each redistribution and provides:

Whenever an electoral redistribution is made, the redistribution shall be made upon the principle that the number of electors comprised in each electoral district must not (as at the relevant date) vary from the electoral quota by more than the permissible tolerance.

The electoral quota is calculated by dividing the total number of enrolled voters by the total number of seats in the House of Assembly (47) and rounding to the nearest whole number. The permissible tolerance is then calculated as 10 per cent either above or below the electoral quota.

The bill amends section 77 by providing that for electoral districts that are 100,000 square kilometres in size or larger the permissible tolerance is applied to a combination of the number of enrolled voters, together with a weighting of 1 per cent of the total square kilometres of the district. In effect, this means that exceptionally large seats may have fewer enrolled voters than would otherwise be required.

Before everyone starts freaking out, this only relates to two seats in South Australia currently—the seats of Giles and Stuart—although it is open to the redistribution commission to create other seats of this size by adjusted boundaries down the track. Giles is the largest electorate in South Australia, at 497,000 square kilometres, and Stuart has 330,000 square kilometres. The next largest electorate is Flinders, with 58,000 square kilometres. The bill is actually only trying to address two seats: the seat of Giles, which is currently held by a Labor MP, and the seat of Stuart, which is currently held by a Liberal MP.

While it is obviously a matter for the redistribution commission, on current projections all three of these electorates, including Flinders, which is not 100,000 square kilometres, are under quota. The bill would give the commissioner more leeway to address this. For example, the seat of Giles, which is close to 12 per cent under quota on current projections, would be within the permissible tolerance once adjusted on this basis. Indeed, it could shed some of its area to a neighbouring seat.

I know that the opposition will claim that this bill would water down the principle of one vote, one value that underlies our redistribution process. The fact is that this is modelled on current measures implemented by the Labor government in Queensland and Western Australia, both dismantling systems of malapportionment, which should give them cause to rethink. So this system is based on Western Australian and Queensland Labor governments introducing this system.

There are lots of other options that we could go by: one would be setting a higher tolerance level, such as the Northern Territory, which has a 20 per cent margin, although other areas have a lower percentage. We could do a proportional or top-up system, such as New Zealand, Germany, Scotland, Wales or Greater London, but of course there are plenty of other opportunities to debate those systems.

I want to be clear: I am not a defender of the so-called 'Playmander' and, contrary to the claims of some, this bill would not create a 'Bellmander'. The malapportionment of the Playford era was a distortion of democracy, and I pay tribute to those who fought for and led reform to have a fair system. But any comparison of my modest proposal in this bill to the malapportionment of the Playford era would be an overreach.

Mr Pederick: The 'Bellmander'.

The SPEAKER: The member for Hammond is called to order.

Mr BELL: In wrapping up, this bill would seek to address the issues we see. It would only be addressing two seats currently: Giles and Stuart. It would give the boundaries commissioner more ability to take into consideration the large area—over 100,000 square kilometres—of those two seats and it recognises the difficulty and extra challenges that those two members, one Labor and one Liberal, have in maintaining contact with their constituents. It seeks a very modest approach in addressing the current system. I commend the bill to the house.

Debate adjourned on motion of Mr Pederick.