Gerrymandering and malapportionment

Following on from last week’s American political terms (pork barrelling and boondoggle) I have been researching another wonderful political term we have adopted from the US—gerrymander. I am sure that you have heard of it as it is often thrown around in Australian politics although we use it quite differently to the Americans.

Origin of gerrymander

The word gerrymander was first used in 1812 to describe changes to Massachusetts’ election districts under Governor Elbridge Gerry in 1812. Governor Gerry changed the electorate boundaries purely to favour voting for his party. He famously created one district with a shape that resembled a salamander, forever giving the world the gerry-mander to describe the process of manipulating electoral district boundaries with the intention of gaining a political advantage for a particular party or group.

Australian malapportionment

In the Australian Government and its states, boundaries are set by statutory independent organisations. These prevent politicians from manipulating boundaries for their own benefit. Instead, the term to gerrymander is used in Australia to describe the process of malapportionment (or misapportionment). Apportionment is the process by which electorates are distributed to give representation to voters. The historic principle is to give each voter equal weight.

Malapportionment is where some electorates are given a higher representation of voters than others. Malapportionment can be legitimate and is not uncommon in Australia. In Australia it occurs as a consequence of the unequal distribution of populations between states and between rural and metropolitan areas.

Senate representation is a good example of legitimate malapportionment. Each state is given equal representation in the senate although they have much different population sizes. In the Australian Senate there are 76 senators, 12 from each state and two each from the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory. Tasmania, the smallest state with a population just over half a million has the same number of senators as NSW that has over seven million people (however, due to the two party system this does not create inequities).

The Bjelkemander and Playmander

However there have been many cases of malapportionment that have given political advantage to particular parties.

Bjelkemander was the malapportionment of electorates in the state of Queensland in the 1970s and 1980s (originally introduced by the Queensland Labor Government). Under the system, rural electorates had approximately half as many voters as metropolitan ones. This allowed the Premier Joh Bjelke Peterson, and his National Party, to stay in power with a minority of support. It earned him the nickname the Hillbilly Dictator.

Playmander (derived from the name of South Australia Premier Sir Thomas Playford from the Liberal and Country League) was another pro-rural electoral malapportionment that occurred in South Australia. It was in place from 1936 to 1968. It consisted of low-population rural seats holding a two-to-one advantage over high-population metropolitan seats in the state parliament, even though rural seats contained only a third of South Australia’s population.

Incidentally it was Playford’s predecessor that introduced the system that helped Playford to become the longest serving elected government leader in the history of Australia (or anywhere else in the Westminster system). Regardless of the Playmandering, he was a very capable politician who was recognised for significantly advancing the interests of his state.