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The Playmander was a form of electoral malapportionment in the Australian state of South Australia, in place from 1936 to 1968.[1] It consisted of rural districts enjoying a 2-to-1 advantage in the state parliament, even though they contained less than half of the population, as well as a change from multiple member to single member electorates, and the number of MPs in the lower house was reduced from 46 to 39.

More equitable boundaries were subsequently put in place: in 1968, 1975, and 1989. More seats were introduced, and seats are required to be proportionate, as well as having a unique fairness clause which directs the Electoral Commission of South Australia to strategically re-draw boundaries in attempts to ensure as much as possible that the party which wins the majority of the two-party preferred vote wins government.

The word Playmander is a portmanteau derived from the name of Premier Sir Thomas Playford and the political term gerrymander, though the system did not originate with Playford (it was introduced under his predecessor Richard Layton Butler) and was not technically a gerrymander (the latter does not imply malapportionment). Playford was its primary beneficiary, however, as his Liberal and Country League (LCL) party was able to stay in power for three decades even while losing several elections in terms of vote numbers.


When South Australia first gained responsible government in 1856, its constitution required that there be two country electorates for every one electorate in Adelaide and its suburbs.

With the merger of the Liberal Federation and the Country Party in 1932 to form the Liberal and Country League, the Country Party demanded key concessions as part of the deal, particularly to the electoral system. The system of rural overweighting was to increase to a 2:1 ratio, the number of MPs was to be reduced to 39 and the multi-member electorates were to be abandoned for single-member electorates--13 in Adelaide and 26 in country areas. The changes would effectively lock the Labor Party out of power.

There was much uproar when they were brought in; Labor MP Tom Howard declared that "the working class will not lay down like tame dogs under a system that will not give them proper representation". The electoral system contributed to Playford achieving a world-record for a democratically elected leader; he spent 27 years as Premier of South Australia. During this period, as a result of population changes, the rural overweighting allowed Playford to hold onto power even when the LCL lost by decisive margins in actual votes. Rural areas, excepting industrial towns such as Whyalla, were likely to support the LCL. The Adelaide metropolitan area was overwhelmingly Labor, with the LCL only having a realistic chance of winning seats in the wealthy "eastern crescent" and around Holdfast Bay. By the early 1960s, the rural-to-urban ratio had been almost completely reversed from 1856. More than two-thirds of the state's population lived in the Adelaide metropolitan area, yet the rural overweighting effectively resulted in a country vote being worth double that of a metro vote.

The system was around 1971 branded the "Playmander" (a pun on the term Gerrymander) by political scientists Neal Blewett and Dean Jaensch of Flinders University,[2] and adopted by the Adelaide press, and the articulate young Labor member Don Dunstan. Dunstan, more than anyone else, was the driving force behind Labor both "beating" the Playmander and changes being made to the electoral system. The latter, however, would not be implemented by Dunstan.

The 1962 state elections showed just how grossly distorted the Playmander had become. Labor, under Frank Walsh, abandoned a statewide campaign in favour of targeting the LCL's marginal seats. At the election, Labor won 54 percent of the two-party vote, yet came up one seat short of a majority. The balance of power rested with two independents, who supported Playford and allowed him to continue in office with a bare one-seat majority.

The Playmander was eventually beaten at the 1965 election. While Labor won 55 percent of the first-preference vote, the rural overweighting was strong enough that it won just enough seats for a majority. Walsh retired in late 1967 and was succeeded by Dunstan, who led Labor into the 1968 election. While Labor won 53.2 percent of the two-party vote, it lost two seats, resulting in a hung parliament. Independent Tom Stott threw his support to the LCL, thus making LCL leader Steele Hall the new premier even though the LCL had won only 46.8 percent of the vote.

The outcry over this result led Hall to institute electoral reform that saw the establishment of 47 single-member electorates in 1968--28 in Adelaide and 19 in the country. It fell short of "one vote one value," as Labor had demanded. However, while there was still a slight rural overweighting, Adelaide now elected a majority of the legislature, making it a near-certainty that Labor would win the next election. When an election was called in 1970, the Labor Party gained power with 53.3% of the vote.

In 1973, Labor retained office with 54.5% of the vote, and the LCL became the South Australian division of the Liberal Party of Australia in 1974. Labor retained power in 1975 with a majority of seats but lost the vote on 49.2%, which saw Dunstan institute "one vote one value" electoral reform, which meant that all electorates had to contain approximately the same number of enrolled voters. The reform solidified Labor's position, as the new system did not take into account sizeable electoral majorities. Much of the Liberal vote was held in ultra-safe rural seats where it was rendered useless. After John Bannon won in 1989 even after losing the vote at 48%, a referendum was passed which added a "fairness clause" to electoral legislation, stipulating that boundaries must reflect results and as far as possible ensure that a party that wins more than 50% of the two-party-preferred vote will gain office, with boundaries to be re-drawn after each election.[3]

The Labor Party would hold power between 1970 and 1993, excepting a Liberal stint between 1979 and 1982. Labor then regained power in 2002 and has held office since under Mike Rann (2002-2011) and Jay Weatherill (2011-present). Labor's success in South Australia over the years has been based mainly on the strength of its dominance in Adelaide. In the 2014 state election, for instance, Labor only won 47 percent of the two-party vote to the Liberals' 53 percent. However, the Liberals only won 12 of the 36 metropolitan seats, allowing the 12-year Labor government to win a fourth consecutive term in government, tying Dunstan's four consecutive victories from 1970 to 1977.

Results 1938–70[edit]

The playmander began in 1936 and ended after 1968.

Liberals blue, Labor red. Electoral districts for the 2006 election in metro Adelaide with 35 metro districts representing 1.1 million people, with 12 rural districts representing 0.4 million people. In the 1965 election, 13 metro districts represented 0.7 million people and 26 rural districts represented 0.4 million people. For other maps 1993 and onward, see Elections in South Australia.
Results 1938–1970
1970 51.64 (27) 43.76 (20) 1.46 3.14 53.3 46.7
1968 51.98 (19) 43.82 (19) 1.03 (1) 3.18 53.2 46.8
1965 55.04 (21) 35.93 (17) 1.88 (1) 7.16 54.3 45.7
1962 53.98 (19) 34.51 (18) 3.15 (2) 8.37 54.3 45.7
1959 49.35 (17) 36.95 (20) 5.93 (2) 7.77 49.7 50.3
1956 47.37 (15) 36.69 (21) 7.34 (3) 8.60 48.7 51.3
1953 50.84 (15) 36.45 (20) 11.10 (4) 1.60 53.0 47.0
1950 48.09 (12) 40.51 (23) 10.07 (4) 1.34 48.7 51.2
1947 48.64 (13) 40.38 (23) 6.20 (3) 4.77
1944 42.52 (16) 45.84 (20) 6.64 (3) 5.00
1941 36.27 (13) 39.13 (21) 24.60 (5) 0.00
1938 26.16 (9) 33.44 (15) 34.08 (12) 6.21 (3)
Source: Australian Government and Politics Database and ABC for 2PP


  1. ^ Labor and Liberal Parties, SA, Dean Jaensch, "A 2:1 ratio of enrolments in favour of the rural areas was in force from 1936."
  2. ^ "Gerrymander in SA.". The Canberra Times (ACT : 1926 - 1995) (ACT: National Library of Australia). 31 August 1976. p. 2. Retrieved 2 November 2014. 
  3. ^


  • Blewett, Neal (1971). Playford to Dunstan: The Politics of Transition. Griffin Press Limited. ISBN 0-7015-1299-7. 
  • Dunstan, Don (1981). Felicia: The Political Memoirs of Don Dunstan. Griffin Press Limited. ISBN 0-333-33815-4. 
  • Crocker, Walter (1983). Sir Thomas Playford: A Portrait. Melbourne University Press. ISBN 0-522-84250-X. 
  • Cockburn, Stewart (1991). Playford: Benevolent Despot. Griffin Press Limited. ISBN 0-9594164-4-7. 
  • Jaensch, Dean. (2006) When the state voting system defies all logic, The Advertiser, p18, 26 April 2006.

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