The upcoming NSW state redistribution demonstrates how the politics of New South Wales is shaped by the geographical barriers that surround Sydney.
This year an independent panel of Electoral Districts Commissioners will preside over the drawing up of a new set of electorates to cover the next two New South Wales state elections.
They will take a round of submissions and a round of comments on those submissions, and then prepare a set of draft boundaries, followed by another round of submissions and comments. At the end of this process, a final set of boundaries are released.
Major political parties usually provide submissions that draw a new electoral map of the entire state that fits within the legal requirements for electoral boundaries (and usually subtly benefits their side). The commissioners are not expected to take direction from political parties, but if they come up with a good solution to a problem faced by the commissioners in fitting the boundaries to the numbers they may well be used in part.
Under New South Wales law, all electorates must be within 10 per cent of the average enrolment (or quota) as of December 2012. All electorates must also be projected to be within 10 per cent of the average enrolment as of April 2015.
As the commissioners draw these boundaries, they will be constrained by the geography of New South Wales, particularly in the Sydney region. Sydney’s boundaries are shaped by clear geographical barriers which are difficult to cross when drawing the electoral map. Other capital cities such as Melbourne and Brisbane have fewer geographical features that restrict how you can draw the map.
Sydney is bounded by the Blue Mountains to the west, the Hawkesbury River and the Central Coast to the north, and the Georges River and the Royal National Park to the south. A seat that crosses any of these barriers will tend to include groups of people with little in common, and electoral maps try to avoid creating a seat that would straddle such a barrier.
Sydney Harbour, the Parramatta River, the Georges River and Botany Bay function as internal barriers that restrict what you can do within the Sydney region. The commissioners strive to avoid creating a seat that would cross Sydney Harbour or Botany Bay.
There is only one part of the Sydney region where there isn’t a clear barrier between what is considered Sydney and what is considered Not Sydney — the route taken by the Hume Highway and the railway from Sydney to Canberra and Melbourne, going through Campbelltown, Wollondilly, Goulburn and the south-west of New South Wales.
Because of this geographical opening, seats in the south-west of Sydney, and seats further along that route, tend to change most dramatically when a redistribution takes place.
The 52 seats in the Sydney region have almost enough voters to make up half of an extra Sydney seat, with 52.47 enrolment quotas. This over-quota is not shared equally among Sydney’s suburbs, with increased density and therefore population in Sydney’s north-west and centre, while other parts of Sydney are slightly under quota.
In contrast, Western NSW is 34 per cent under quota, and the border seats of Barwon and Murray-Darling are the smallest seats by enrolment in New South Wales.
The biggest issue the commissioners and political parties will face is how to move the boundaries to account for extra people in the inner city, and less people in the far west of the state.
This will likely be resolved by shifting a long string of seats starting in the inner city and stretching out to Western NSW via the south-west of Sydney.
The seats of Sydney and Heffron in the inner city are both well over quota. The seats to their east (Vaucluse, Coogee and Maroubra) are about the right size, so Sydney and Heffron cannot lose their eastern parts. The only solution is to remove western parts of those two seats and transfer them to Balmain and Marrickville.
Balmain and Marrickville, however, are already over quota, so the addition of these extra areas will push them well over quota, and force them to transfer their western edges to Strathfield and Canterbury. This process continues as you extend further and further out to the west.
Ultimately this bulge of extra voters needs to meet the border seats of Barwon and Murray-Darling — the least populated seats in the state. The only way to do this is to push the bulge further south and west through Bankstown, Cabramatta, Liverpool, Campbelltown and ultimately Goulburn.
There are a number of ways to do this but most of the seats along this route will need to be changed dramatically, and at least one of these seats will be abolished. Others may be changed so much that they need to be renamed.
It is likely that a new seat will need to be created somewhere between Ashfield and Bankstown. This seat will swallow up the bulge and push each seat to the south-west further out. Ultimately a seat will need to be abolished to balance the creation of another Sydney seat, and what is left of that seat will bring the far west seats up to quota.
In the course of this process, seats in south-western Sydney will have to be substantially redrawn, with some possibly losing half of their current voters to a neighbour. Pru Goward’s seat of Goulburn will almost certainly be dramatically redrawn, and possibly abolished.
It is impossible to say what seat names will survive, and any major change will have consequences on neighbouring seats. If the National-held seat of Burrinjuck was to gain the city of Goulburn, this could result in the Liberal Party challenging for the seat of Burrinjuck, and the Nationals could well lose a seat rather than the Liberals.
In Sydney it is likely that the new seat will be a notional Labor seat, but it is possible that the major changes to Balmain and Marrickville could see a Labor seat become notionally Green, or a Greens seat become notionally Labor.
The first round of submissions is due in early March, and the process will be concluded this year. Once the new maps have been released, newly elected Liberal MPs in Western Sydney will be scrambling to find a seat on a new map which could well have chopped up their old seat. This is likely to force Liberal MPs into competition with each other and will affect the position of the government as it prepares for re-election in 2015.
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