Tasmania’s 2 extra seats in the Constitutional gerrymander


A little mental arithmetic on Saturday night left me wondering why Tasmania has 5 federal seats in the lower house.  There are 150 seats in the lower house, as we all now know.  The Australian Bureau of Statistics site trumpets Australia’s population as 22.4 million.  So there should be about one seat per 150,000 people.  Tasmania’s population was 505,000 at the end of 2009.  Therefore Tasmania has less than 3.4 quotas, and since quotas are, quite rationally, rounded to the nearest integer, Tasmania should have 3 seats in the lower house.

The reason that Tasmania has 5 seats is because the Australian Constitution guarantees each state at least 5 seats in the House of Representatives.  I didn’t know that until I went to the Australian Electoral Commission’s website to find out what is going on.  But the implication for this election is obvious.  The five seats in Tasmania are all in the Labour-Green column.  If the seats were allocated purely on the basis of population then NSW and WA would each have another seat.  WA has only 3 Labour seats out of 15.

This constitutional gerrymander may well keep the Conservatives out of power in this pivotal election.  This distortion should be brought to the people’s attention and rectified in a referendum.  None of the other states are in any danger of falling below the 5 seat floor.  South Australia, the next lowest, has 11 seats.

If we did change the constitution on this matter, then we should get rid of the relationship between states and federal electorates.  What have the state boundaries to do with Federal lower house seat boundaries?  For example, Queanbeyan, a town in NSW, is much closer to the centre of Canberra than many of the ACT’s outer suburbs.  Most of the Kimberley in WA is much closer to Darwin than to Perth.

On the matter of close elections, my vote could still decide the outcome of the whole thing.  I live in the electorate of Hasluck in WA.  Ken Wyatt (Lib) leads Sharyn Jackson (Lab) by only 300 votes and the gap is narrowing.  I am proud that the first indigenous member of the lower house may be elected in Hasluck.  Not by me though.  When I went into the polling booth my green paper showed  7 candidates for the lower house.  One was from the Global Warming Skeptics party, so I knew straight away who to put last.  Unfortunately, the Liberal Party itself is a party of global warming skeptics so I reluctantly had to put Mr Wyatt near the bottom too.

23 Responses to "Tasmania’s 2 extra seats in the Constitutional gerrymander"
    “What have the state boundaries to do with Federal lower house seat boundaries?”
    Hope the bolding helps
    Having a referendum to change the constitution merely to deal with Tasmania having 1 or 2 too many seats seems a bit excessive.
    Beyond that you are setting up for a failure given the history of referenda in this country.
    Also, I IIRC rural seats tend to have lower populations than city seats which, if true, throughs a spanner into your calculus.

  2. Section 128 of the Constitution:
    “No alteration diminishing the proportionate representation of any State in
    either House of the Parliament, or the minimum number of representatives of a
    State in the House of Representative, in increasing, diminishing, or otherwise
    altering the limits of the State, or in any manner affecting the provisions of
    the Constitution in relation thereto, shall become law unless the majority of
    the electors voting in that State approve the proposed law.”

  3. Fair enough, Tasmania benefits from a small gerrymander, but I’m surprised that you are so het up about it, when they get 10 Senators out of 64 which is roughly 8 more than they deserve and I’m sure you’re also concerned at the extra 4 Senate seats that you sandgropers get, so when we have the referendum we should fix the Senate as well 🙂
    Martin (not a Tasmanian)

  4. Thanks Bob
    Doesn’t that mean that Section 128 would need to be changed in the referendum.  Is there any clause in the Constitution that cannot be changed at a referendum?
    Sam Wylie

  5. Martin
    I would be happy to get rid of the states altogether.  Federal government and about 50 or 60 substantial local governments is all we need.  The states are in the way, and source of poor governance for the most part.
    Sam Wylie

  6. There’s more over-representation in the Senate than the HoR.
    When all the states split down the middle, it doesn’t make much difference, but if ALP+Green get a Senate majority every time due to 57%+ in the smallest state, the conservatives will be unhappy.

  7. No political party has seen the 5 seat minimum as a burning issue. Perhaps that will change now that we actually have the first hung parliament in 70 years. You could argue that not dealing with such a constitutional anachronism prior to our current situation indicates the usual short-term thinking by our politicians – fix something after it becomes a problem…

  8. Sam: The point of the quote is that Tasmania would have to vote yes to reducing their own representation, which would never happen.

  9. @James

    That may be true for Tasmania, but Section 128 works through passage of a “double majority”, i.e. a majority of voters in a majority of states (4/6).

    If major parties supported such a referendum proposal then there isn’t really an insurmountable obstacle to achieving a double majority – why wouldn’t other voters in other states support it?

  10. Sam,
    Isn’t another alternative for the lower house to keep Tasmania at 5 seats but increase the number of electorates overall? Tasmania would still be getting the right proportion for its population and would still be getting the minimum 5 seats.
    Agree with you re: States being unnecessary layers of government. How much does it cost us to have them around? There is not only the cost of maintaining parliaments but also cost for different regulations between states that force business to conform to multiple sets of standards and rules.

  11. Essentially Tasmania cannot have less than 5 rep seats but the number of electors should be close to the same in every rep seat in the country. Eventually, as has happened twice before, we will have increase the number of seats in the other states. Then because the number of senators (excluding the 4 ACT/NT ones) has to be half the number of reps the size of the senate will need to be increased. Because (under normal circumstances) only half the senate is elected at each election you would need to increase the number of senators from each state to 14 or 16 which means (leaving aside the 4 ACT/NT ones) 84 or 96 senators and therefore 168 or 192 reps.
    Yes the constitution could use a major rebuild but it might be easier to just double the population of Tasmania which leaving Tas with 5 rep seats would allow you to increase the number of electors per electorate and probably reduce the total number of reps and senators by around a third.

  12. Even if the (very significant) constitutional hurdles could be overcome, this would be a lot of pain for almost no gain. To avoid Tasmania being unrepresented, you would still need to have four seats, as three seats would be too few for 500,000 Tasmanians. Surely Sam’s view that ‘state boundaries don’t matter’ doesn’t extend to saying that ‘Bass Strait doesn’t matter’, i.e. you surely couldn’t include Devenport in Melbourne Ports!
    So, that’s several referenda (one to attempt to change s128, an inevitable – and likely successful –  intervening constitutional challenge, a second one to change s24, a further constitutional challenge) just to reduce Tasmania’s five seats to four.

  13. I agree that the nation has bigger problems than fixing the “Tasmanian gerrymander”, but nonetheless when the next batch of referendums goes to the people we should get rid of the 5 seat minimum clause.  Presumably, there is nothing in the constitution that cannot be changed at a referendum under the 2/3, 2/3 rule.  If Labour takes power in this tied election it will be because of the quirk of the constitution.  We wouldn’t want that to happen again.
    3 seats for Tasmania is the right number.  505000 is less than 3.5 seats so it rounds down to 3.  The same rule is applied everywhere else.  The NT for instance has on 1.58 or a quota but they round up to two seats.  WA has 15.4 quotas and round down to 15 seats.  Moreover, Tasmania’s population is declining as a percentage of the total Australian population.

  14. Sam,
    Putting aside the fact that the Australian Constitution is what it is and people should try to work with it rather than advocating changes that will never be made, the divisions (electorates) are worked out on the basis of the number of enrolled voters, not the population. Tasmania would have four seats, not three, without the five seat minimum rule.
    Another Sam

  15. Sam,
    Spoken like true conservative “live with the institutions that you have and be happy” :-).  Your statement about enrolled voter numbers is not correct.  Entitlements worked on population numbers.  Tasmania’s entitlement is 3.45.  See the AEC website explanation at:  http://www.aec.gov.au/Electorates/Redistributions/Overview.htm

  16. If the problem is that Labor may get in despite people not voting for them, Labor got an extremely slight majority in 2PP terms and got less than half the seats (even once you take into account the Greenish MPs).

    The Tasmanian gerrymander seem to be balancing out the demographic gerrymander.

  17. @Stephen,

    That’s rationalization after the voting fact. If Australia wanted to go the full 9 yards and alter the constitution in a referendum to reflect a direct and ‘fair’ outcome in voting then we would have Proportional Representation in the House of Reps and eliminate the Senate altogether. The appropriate threshold rate for PR I leave to others to debate. (It could be the current Senate PR threshold as an ambit…)

    Every subsequent government would probably be a Minority government and the parties would have to learn how to negotiate on legislation up-front (instead of passing legislation along party lines in the lower house and negotiating/begging/bribing/stealing votes in the upper house.)

  18. You need to do some research on what a gerrymander is by finding out how the term originated-it certainly does not apply to Tasmania.
    After you have are done your research on the gerrymander,it would be a good idea to broaden your knowledge on “climate change” as well.

  19. I stand corrected about how electorates are distributed.
    However, I resent the accusation of being a conservative – which I am not, regardless of how sarcastic it may have been.
    I simply regard most discussion about amending the constitution, to abolish the states for example, as unproductive as it is never going to happen and only distracts from efforts to make the current system, which we seem stuck with, work.

  20. If you think that’s bad, in the US each state gets two senators, regardless of population.  So residents of Wyoming have 70 times the voting power than my native California!

  21. Jeremy: Even three seats for Tasmania would still leave Tasmanians significantly better represented than the ACT, which has only 2 seats for a population of 345,000.
    Anyways, the entire discussion misses the point, which is that the whole single-member electorate system is a massive malapportionment in the first place.  It ensures that a slightly plurarity of votes usually translates into an overwhelming majority in Parliament.

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