South Australian political historians coined the phrase “Playmander” to describe the phenomenon that saw Sir Thomas Playford retain office as Premier from 1938 until 1965 despite “losing” the popular vote on a number of occasions.
Who would have thought that in 2014, we’d see a situation nearly rivalling the 1960s – where a party could be deprived of a majority in parliament despite winning (as reported to date) some 52.5% of the two-party vote? (Final figures will not be known for some time – in respect of the last election, the SA Electoral Commission calculates that Labor retained power in 2010 with 48.4% of the two-party vote.) Commentators are quick to congratulate Labor for “sand-bagging” its marginal seats, and apparently suggest that it would be poor form for the Liberals to blame a “Jay-mander” for failing to win an outright majority of seats.
It seems that complaints of “electoral unfairness” only gain traction when Labor is disadvantaged! For example, Don Dunstan lost power in 1968 despite winning 52% of first- preference votes, and this triggered a tsunami of protest.
According to electoral specialist Jenni Newton-Farrelly: “For the six weeks between election day and the first day of sitting when Labor lost a vote on the floor of the house and lost government, Labor waged a one vote one value campaign involving media appearances, press reports and several large public demonstrations.” The outcome was a series of electoral reforms - and it was assumed that with independent boundary commissioners, and equal numbers of voters per seat, electoral unfairness would become a thing of the past.
Yet a number of elections since the “reforms” resulted in parties gaining a majority of seats with a minority of the vote. Of course in a system of single member electorates, it is simplistic to assume that “fair” outcomes can be guaranteed every time. Even in federal elections, governments have retained office with less than 50% of the popular vote – although since 1949 no party has “won” an election with less than 49% of the two-party vote. (However recent South Australian elections have seen much more anomalous results, partly as a result of the fact that parties can “waste” votes by piling up huge margins in safe seats. In 2010 this feature benefited the ALP - despite big swings against the government in its safest seats, Labor was still able to retain them but with reduced margins).
Adopting a parliamentary select committee recommendation, in 1991 a referendum inserted a unique “fairness” clause into South Australian electoral law. This requires that “as far as practicable … the electoral redistribution is fair” so that if a party attracts more than 50% of the state-wide popular vote it will win “sufficient numbers to enable a government to be formed”.
However despite this provision, and the best efforts of electoral authorities, a majority of elections since the 1991 referendum have failed to deliver government to the party winning a majority of the popular vote (although admittedly the results in 1997 and 2002 were not as clear cut as the situation now).
Perhaps it is time to recognise that South Australia’s electoral geography requires special measures to address the problem of ensuring a fair outcome. One of the options considered by the Select Committee that recommended the insertion of a “fairness clause” into electoral law was a “top-up system”. This could involve a number of additional state-wide seats to be awarded to a party that gained the majority of the vote, to ensure that it also had a majority in the parliament. This system is used in a number of countries, and could help ensure that complaints of a “Jay-mander” are consigned to history.
Allan Pidgeon contested a seat for the Liberal Party in Queensland ten years ago, but does not blame unfair electoral boundaries for his failure to win it.
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