Bjelkemander

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The Bjelkemander was the term given to a system of malapportionment in the Australian State of Queensland in the 1970s and 1980s.[1] Under the system, electorates were allocated to zones such as rural or metropolitan and electoral boundaries drawn so that rural electorates had about half as many voters as metropolitan ones. The Country Party (later National Party), a rural-based party led by Joh Bjelke-Petersen, was able to govern uninhibited during this period due to the 'Bjelkemander'.

Origin of term[edit]

The term is a portmanteau of Joh Bjelke-Petersen's surname with the word "Gerrymander", where electoral boundaries are redrawn in an unnatural way with the dominant intention of favouring one political party or grouping over its rivals. Although Bjelke-Petersen's 1972 redistributions occasionally had elements of "gerrymandering" in the strict sense, their perceived unfairness had more to do with malapportionment whereby certain areas (normally rural) are simply granted more representation than their population would dictate if electorates contained equal numbers of voters (or population).

Electoral system under Bjelke-Petersen[edit]

When the Country (later National) Party first won power in 1957 under Bjelke-Petersen's predecessor, Frank Nicklin, it inherited a system of malapportionment from the previous Australian Labor Party government. After becoming premier Nicklin reworked this setup to benefit the Country and Liberal parties. The provincial cities were split off from their hinterlands, where new Country Party seats were created. At the same time, more Liberal seats were created in the Brisbane area. While fairer than Labor's map, it was still slanted toward the Coalition.

Bjelke-Petersen tweaked this setup even further after becoming premier, benefiting his own Country Party at the expense of the Labor and Liberal parties. In Queensland, unlike at the federal level and in the other states, the Country/National Party was the senior partner in the non-Labor coalition, with the Liberals as junior partner. However, Bjelke-Petersen's system discriminated against the Liberals as much if not more heavily than the Labor Party. As a party drawing its votes mainly in Brisbane, the Liberals were regarded by Bjelke-Petersen as liberal (with a small l) and not representative of Country/National interests. When he became premier, the number of seats held by the Nationals and Liberals was relatively close and therefore there was a further incentive for the Country Party to increase their parliamentary numbers at the expense of the Liberals.

History[edit]

From 1910 to 1949, Queensland had a "one person, one vote, one value" electoral system, with a maximum variation of 30% from the Statewide average quota. But in 1949 the Australian Labor Party conducted a revision which varied the number of voters in each electorate according to their size and distance from Brisbane, the state capital in the far south-east of the huge state. Although difficulties in transport and communication were given as the reasons to reduce the size of remote and thinly-populated electorates, the effect was to give a huge advantage to the Labor Party, which at that time drew its voting strength from rural areas, a consequence of the party's formation in the outback Queensland town of Barcaldine half a century earlier.[2]

The newly elected Country Party MP for Nanango, Joh Bjelke-Petersen, spoke out against the redistribution, saying that it meant that "the majority will be ruled by the minority" and that the Labor government was telling the people "whether you like it or not, we will be the Government".

The 1957 ALP split, where Premier Vince Gair led many MPs to form the Queensland Labor Party (QLP), undermined the malapportionment's advantage to Labor. Since the boundaries were drawn to take advantage of the ALP's rural supporters (farm workers, miners etc.) the rural-based Country Party were able to take the most advantage from Labor's infighting.

In 1971, Bjelke-Petersen, who became Premier in 1968, proposed to refine the gerrymander to favour his party at the expense of his Coalition partners, the Liberal Party, as well as Labor. Electoral demographics had changed since 1949 and Labor now drew most of its support from urban concentrations of workers. Labor opposed the scheme, as did enough of the Liberals to defeat the bill in Parliament. However, Bjelke-Petersen worked during a four-month Parliamentary recess to redraft the scheme just enough to ensure the support of the Liberal Party and the redesigned gerrymander was used as the basis for the May 1972 election, from which Bjelke-Petersen emerged victorious as Premier despite only receiving 20% of the vote, a smaller percentage than the Liberals (22.2%) or Labor (46.7%). However, as Bjelke-Petersen's Country Party had won 26 seats compared to the 21 of the Liberals, the Country Party was the senior party in the coalition, which held 47 seats, thereby putting the Labor Party with 33 seats into opposition.

In 1977 another redistribution eliminated some Liberal seats, reducing the internal threat to the Country Party (now renamed the National Party).

Electoral effect[edit]

The putative reasons given for reducing the number of voters in remote and rural electorates have some validity. In 1949 the electorate of Gregory was larger in area than Great Britain, but contained fewer than 6000 voters. In addition it contained vast areas of desert and the few communities were poorly served by road and rail links. Other electorates were almost as large, and in fact the four electorates of Gregory, Cook, Flinders and Mount Isa together comprised nearly two thirds of Queensland's entire landmass. The difficulties of keeping in touch with the population over such enormous and diverse regions were cited by both Labor (in 1949) and the Country Party in 1971 as reasons for malapportionment.

At the 1956 election the change from the previous one vote-one value system was dramatic. The Brisbane-area seat of Mount Gravatt had 26307 voters, while the seat of Charters Towers in far northern Queensland had just 4367, a ratio of six to one. If the number of votes cast per party is divided by the number of seats won, the effect on party representation is underscored. In 1956 the Labor Party needed 7000 votes to win each seat, the Country Party 9900, and the Liberals 23800. Using the Dauer-Kelsay Index, which calculates the smallest percentage of voters needed to win an election, the theoretical ideal being just over 50%, at the 1957 election this number was 39.1%, meaning that the non-Labor parties would have required more than 60% of the vote to win.

Other low scores in Australian electoral history were the South Australian 'Playmander' with a low of 23.4% on the Dauer-Kelsay Index, and Victoria in 1974, registering 40.3%.

By this index, Bjelke-Petersen's 1972 revision was actually a step towards democracy, with the index rising to 44.9%, and the disparity in electorate sizes reduced with Pine Rivers (16758 voters) and Gregory (6723) marking the extremes. In terms of vote per seat, the Country Party needed 7000 votes to win each seat, Liberal 9600 and Labor 12800.

However, the effect was that Bjelke-Petersen was Premier of the state with just 20% of the votes. The following table shows the figures for the 1972 election:

Party Votes cast Percentage Seats won Percent of seats
Labor 424002 46.7 33 40.2
Liberal 201596 22.2 21 25
Country 181404 20.0 26 31.1
DLP 69757 7.7 0 0
Independent 23951 2.6 0 2.4
Other 6236 0.7 0 0
Invalid 14817 1.6 0 0

The Labor Party won 33 seats, the largest of any single party. However, since the Coalition had 47 seats between them, Labor was consigned to Opposition. Bjelke-Petersen's Country Party had 26 seats to the Liberals' 21. Thus, as leader of the senior coalition partner, Bjelke-Petersen stayed on as premier.

It can also be seen from the above table that the DLP had 7.7% of the vote, but won no seats at all. Most of these votes flowed through preferential voting away from the Labor Party, exacerbating the effect of the "Bjelkemander".

However, if the above figures are used with proportional representation, in effect treating the entire State as one multi-member electorate and removing any effects of gerrymander or malapportionment, the results would have been ALP 39, Coalition 36, DLP 5, and Independents 2. Labor would have found it impossible to govern without the support of the DLP, an extremely unlikely scenario given the antagonism between the two parties.

Other factors[edit]

The malapportionment favouring country areas helped Labor in 1949 onwards and the Country Party from 1957. The 1972 redistribution introduced a gerrymander effect favouring the Country Party, by which boundaries were drawn to consolidate Labor-voting populations and diversify Country supporters. A seat won with 50.1% of the vote was just as good in Parliament as one with 100% support. Liberal and especially Labor voters were usually found in identifiable "clumps" within Brisbane and the regional cities, a reflection of the income levels available to workers and the middle class dividing them between desirable and less desirable suburbs.

The metropolis of Brisbane was a zone of limited support for Bjelke-Petersen's Country Party, but fertile ground was found in the regional centres where Labor populations could be aggregated together and the rural voters of the surrounding districts distributed to electorates where they would be of most use to the Country Party.

End of the Bjelkemander[edit]

The resignation of Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen in 1987 and the defeat of the National Party by Labor Government under Wayne Goss in 1989 led to further changes to the State electoral system, which was achieved by a redistribution in 1991 which took effect at the 1992 election.

Acting on the recommendations of the Electoral and Administrative Review Commission (EARC), the Goss Labor Government legislated for a compromise system under which an electorate over 100,000 square km in area could be counted as having notional extra voters (dubbed "phantom voters" by the media) equal to 2% of its area in square kilometres. Apart from this, no electorate could vary from the State-wide average by more than 10%. Only 5 of the 89 districts qualified for this special loading, and since these were (a) huge in area, and (b) not solidly National Party (e.g. Mount Isa and Cook have been regularly held by Labor over the last 20 years), the retention of this small degree of rural vote-weighting is no longer a matter of political controversy in Queensland.

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