House of Representatives Practice, 6th edition – HTML version

3 - Elections and the electoral system

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Electoral divisions

Determination of divisions

The Constitution provides that:

  • the House of Representatives shall be composed of Members directly chosen by the people of the Commonwealth; and
  • the number of Members chosen in the several States shall be in proportion to the respective numbers of their people.[42]

These provisions, together, express the concept of equality of representation, the national concept and the democratic character of the House of Representatives.

The Constitution, having provided for the determination of the number of Members and the manner in which they are chosen, also specified that, until the Parliament otherwise provided, the Parliament of each State could make laws to determine the divisions for the State. The Federal Parliament passed its own legislatn in 1902 (see page 83). Electoral divisions are also commonly known as seats, electorates or constituencies.

In order to determine the number of Members for the States and Territories the Electoral Commissioner first ascertains a quota by dividing the population of the Commonwealth (excluding territorial populations) by twice the number of Senators for the States. The number of Members to be chosen for each State or Territory (other than Norfolk Island and the Jervis Bay Territory) is then determined by dividing the number of people of the State or Territory by the quota. If on such division there is a remainder greater than one half of a quota, an additional Member is chosen.[43] This determination is subject to the constitutional requirement of there being a minimum of five Members for each of the original States[44] and the requirement of the Commonwealth Electoral Act that there be a minimum of one Member for each of the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory.[45]

The Commonwealth Electoral Act provides that each State and the Australian Capital Territory, and the Northern Territory on becoming entitled to more than one Member, shall be distributed into electoral divisions equal in number to the number of Members of the House of Representatives to be chosen for the State or Territory, and one Member of the House of Representatives shall be chosen for each division.[46] These divisions are known as single-member constituencies. Multi-member constituencies, although allowed for in the Constitution, have not been used.[47]

In order to determine these divisions, the Electoral Commissioner ascertains a quota of electors for each State and Territory by dividing the number of electors in the State or Territory by the number of Members to be chosen in that State or Territory.[48] The boundaries of each division are then determined by the State or Territory Redistribution Committee, as outlined below.

Because of Australia’s uneven distribution of population, divisions vary greatly in area. In 2010 the largest division in terms of area was Durack in Western Australia (1.59 million square kilometres) and the smallest was Wentworth in New South Wales (30 square kilometres).

Redistribution

The Commonwealth Electoral Act provides for regular redistributions.[49] The Electoral Commission must direct a redistribution of a State or Territory:

  • when changes in the distribution of population (ascertained during the thirteenth month of the life of each House of Representatives, if still continuing[50]) require a change to the number of Members in a State or Territory;
  • when more than one third of the divisions within a State deviate from the average divisional enrolment for the State by more than 10 per cent, and have done so for more than two months, or in the case of the Australian Capital Territory, when one division so deviates; or
  • within 30 days of the expiration of a period of seven years since the previous redistribution, except that should the seven years expire during the last year of the life of a House of Representatives the redistribution is to commence within 30 days of the first meeting of the next House of Representatives.

Such provisions also apply to the Northern Territory by virtue of section 55A of the Commonwealth Electoral Act, and it is treated as a State for the purposes of redistribution.[51]

To conduct a redistribution the Electoral Commission appoints a Redistribution Committee for the State or Territory, comprising:

  • the Electoral Commissioner;
  • the Australian Electoral Officer for the State or Territory (in the case of the ACT the senior Divisional Returning Officer);
  • the Surveyor-General for the State or Territory or the Deputy Surveyor-General (or equivalent); and
  • the Auditor-General for the State or Territory or the Deputy Auditor-General.

In circumstances where the appropriate State officials are not available, the places of the Surveyor-General and Auditor-General may be filled by senior employees of the Australian Public Service from the State or Territory nominated by the Governor-General.[52]

A quota of electors, ascertained by dividing the number of electors in the State or Territory by the number of Members,[53] is the basis for the proposed redistribution. The estimated enrolment in a proposed division may not depart from this quota by more than 10 per cent. In making the proposed redistribution, the Redistribution Committee is required, as far as practicable, to endeavour to ensure that, three years and six months after the redistribution (or earlier time determined by the Electoral Commission),[54] the number of electors enrolled in each proposed electoral division in the State or Territory will be not less than 96.5% or more than 103.5% of the average divisional enrolment in the State or Territory. Subject to this requirement the Redistribution Committee shall give due consideration, in relation to each proposed electoral division, to:

  • community of interests within the proposed electoral division, including economic, social and regional interests;
  • means of communication and travel within the proposed electoral division;
  • the physical features and area of the proposed electoral division; and
  • the boundaries of existing divisions in the State or Territory.[55]

Redistribution Committees are required to consider any suggestions and comments lodged with them pursuant to public advertisement in the Gazette and the press. A period is allowed for lodgement of suggestions. At the end of the lodgement period, the Redistribution Committee must make copies of all suggestions available for perusal at the relevant office of the Electoral Commission, and invite written comments on the suggestions. A further period is allowed for submission of comments. [56]

Once the initial proposals are determined by the Redistribution Committee, maps showing the names and boundaries of each proposed division must be exhibited at every Electoral Commission office in the State or Territory. Copies of any suggestions or comments made to the committee, detailed descriptions of the proposed boundaries and the committee’s reasons for its proposals must be made available for perusal at Electoral Commission offices.[57] A member of a Redistribution Committee may submit a statement of dissent to any proposal[58] and copies of any such statement must also be made available.

Maps of proposed divisions and the availability of other documents must be advertised publicly and written objections may be lodged.[59] Objections to proposed redistributions are considered by an ‘augmented Electoral Commission’, that is, the members of the Redistribution Committee concerned and the Chairperson and the non-judicial member of the Electoral Commission.[60] The augmented Electoral Commission must hold an inquiry into an objection unless it is of the opinion that the objection is frivolous or vexatious or is substantively the same as a submission previously made.[61] Objections are determined by a majority vote of the augmented Electoral Commission. A final determination of names and boundaries of divisions requires not only a majority vote of the augmented Electoral Commission, but an affirmative vote from at least two of its three members who are also members of the Australian Electoral Commission.[62] If the findings of the augmented Electoral Commission, in its own opinion, are significantly different from the original Redistribution Committee proposals, further objections can be made and a second round of hearings occur. The resultant determinations are final and conclusive. They are not subject to appeal of any kind and cannot be challenged in any court.[63]

Parliamentary procedure

Following determination relevant documents are forwarded to the Minister responsible, who must have them presented to each House within five sitting days of receipt.[64] Under these procedures Parliament has no further role and has no opportunity to alter the determination in any way.[65]

Limited redistribution

If writs are issued for a general election and the number of Members to be elected in a State or the Australian Capital Territory does not correspond to the existing number of electoral divisions, a so-called ‘mini-redistribution’ is conducted by the Electoral Commissioner and the Australian Electoral Officer for the State or Territory (the senior Divisional Returning Officer for the Australian Capital Territory).[66] To decrease or increase the number of divisions, pairs of contiguous divisions with the least number of electors are combined or pairs of contiguous divisions with the greatest number of electors are divided into three, as the case may be. Where two contiguous divisions are combined to form one, the new division carries the names of the divisions from which it was formed, arranged alphabetically and hyphenated. Where two contiguous divisions are divided into three, the names of the former divisions are given to two of the three; and the third new division carries the names of the two former divisions, arranged alphabetically and hyphenated.[67]

Improper influence

It is an offence punishable by fine or imprisonment to seek to influence improperly members of a Redistribution Committee, members of an augmented Electoral Commission or a Redistribution Commissioner in the performance of their duties.[68]

In 1978 a Minister’s appointment was terminated following a finding by a Royal Commissioner that the Minister’s action in seeking to influence Distribution Commissioners in relation to names of electoral divisions had constituted impropriety.[69]


42. Constitution, s. 24; see also Ch. on ‘Members’.
43. Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918, s. 48.
44. Constitution, s. 24.
45. Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918, s. 48(2B). In addition, sections 48(2E) and (2F) prescribe a mechanism for taking account of the possible effects of estimation error on population figures, in such a way as to make it less likely that the Northern Territory or Australian Capital Territory will lose a Member as a result of a determination.
46. Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918, ss. 56, 57. The means of determining the number of Members is laid down in s. 48; and see Ch. on ‘Members’.
47. Except at the first election when both South Australia and Tasmania each voted as one division.
48. Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918, s. 65.
49. Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918, s. 59. The States having been distributed into divisions once are thereafter redistributed. The words ‘distributed’ and ‘redistributed’ are commonly used synonymously.
50. Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918, s. 46.
51. The first redistribution of the Northern Territory to provide for two Members occurred in 2000.
52. Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918, s. 60.
53. Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918, s. 65.
54. Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918, s. 63A.
55. Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918, s. 66.
56. Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918, s. 64.
57. Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918, s. 68.
58. Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918, s. 67.
59. Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918, s. 69.
60. Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918, s. 70.
61. Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918, s. 72.
62. Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918, s. 71(6).
63. Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918, s. 77. The enrolment of new electors and changes to existing enrolments are implemented immediately following the determination of new boundaries. However, for the purpose of electing Members, the new boundaries do not come into effect until the next federal election.
64. Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918, s. 75.
65. Before 1984, redistributions were subject to the approval, by resolution, of each House of the Parliament. The former provisions are described in early editions (4th edn, p. 88).
66. Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918, s. 76. The Northern Territory is treated as a State under these provisions, now that it has two Members.
67. Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918, ss. 76(10) and (12).
68. Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918, s. 78.
69. ‘Matters in relation to electoral redistribution, Queensland 1977’, Report of the Royal Commission of Inquiry, PP 263 (1978). The case is described in more detail in early editions (4th edn, p. 89).

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