The Playmander was a form of malapportionment in the Australian state of South Australia, introduced by the Liberal and Country League (LCL), in place for 32 years from 1936 to 1968. It consisted of rural districts enjoying a 2-to-1 advantage in the state parliament, even though they contained only a third of the population, as well as a change from multi-member to single-member seats, and the number of MPs in the lower house was reduced from 46 to 39. Additionally, with a decisive advantage to the LCL, swing voters may have been more likely to vote for the expected status quo LCL government.
The word Playmander is a portmanteau derived from the name of Premier Sir Thomas Playford and the political term gerrymander. Though Playford was the primary beneficiary, in power for decades, he did nothing to change the system which was introduced by his predecessor Richard Layton Butler.
The most populous metropolitan seats (26) had as much as 5-10 times the number of voters than the least populous rural seats (13) − in 1968 the rural seat of Frome had 4,500 formal votes, while the metropolitan seat of Enfield had 42,000 formal votes.
More equitable boundaries were subsequently put in place following the 1968, 1975, and 1989 elections. More seats were introduced, and seats were required to be proportionate, as well as having a unique fairness clause which directs the Electoral Commission of South Australia to redraw boundaries after each election with the objective that the party which receives over 50 percent of the statewide two-party vote at the forthcoming election should win the two-party vote in a majority of seats.
One element of the Playmander remains to this day − the House of Assembly is still elected from single member districts.
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 increased to a 2:1 ratio, the number of MPs was reduced to 39 and the multi-member electorates were abandoned for single-member electorates, 13 in Adelaide and 26 in rural areas. The changes would effectively lock Labor out of power.
There was much uproar when it was 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 then-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. In 1944 and 1953, for instance, Labor won 53 percent of the two-party vote to the LCL's 47 percent. In most other parts of Australia with fairer electoral systems, this would have been enough to give Labor leader Mick O'Halloran a solid majority government. However, due to the Playmander, the LCL was still able to win 21 seats to Labor's 14, a slim majority of two seats. Rural areas, excepting industrial towns such as Whyalla, were likely to support the LCL. The Adelaide area was overwhelmingly Labor, with the LCL only having a realistic chance of winning seats in the wealthy "eastern crescent" and around Holdfast Bay even at the height of Playford's popularity.
By the early 1960s, the rural-to-urban ratio had been almost completely reversed from 1856. Around two-thirds of the state's population lived in the Adelaide urban area, yet the rural overweighting effectively resulted in a rural vote being worth several times that of an urban vote. In one of the more extreme cases, a vote in the rural seat of Frome was effectively worth ten times a vote in the urban seat of Enfield.
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, 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 overcoming the Playmander and changes being made to the electoral system. The latter, however, would not be implemented by Dunstan.
By the 1950s, many Labor figures had given up any hope of ever winning power. This changed when Frank Walsh became state Labor leader in 1961. Knowing a statewide campaign was not realistic due to the significant rural overweighting, Walsh opted instead to target the LCL's marginal seats in the 1962 election. Even before then, however, the LCL's grip on power was starting to loosen. Due to being almost entirely dependent on rural support, the LCL never held more than 23 seats during Playford's tenure. By the time the writs were dropped for the election, the LCL only had a bare majority of 20 seats, and had lost seats at every election since 1950.
At the election, Labor won 54.3 percent of the two-party vote, which would have been enough for a comprehensive Labor victory in most other states. However, it only managed a two-seat swing, one short of what it needed to make Walsh premier. The balance of power rested with two independents, who supported Playford and allowed him to continue in office with a bare one-seat majority. This illustrated just how distorted the Playmander had become; the LCL was in a position to govern despite winning only 45.7 percent of the two-party vote.
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 only won 21 seats, a two-seat 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 two-party vote. The LCL won only three metropolitan seats in 1965 and 1968 – Burnside, Mitcham and Torrens.
Hall was embarrassed that the LCL was even in a position to govern despite having clearly lost in terms of actual votes. 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 rural areas, an increase of 15 metropolitan seats, more than double. It fell short of "one vote one value," as Labor had demanded, since country areas were still somewhat over-represented. Not only did it not take into account that Adelaide accounted for two-thirds of the state's population, but the most populous metropolitan seats still contained double the number of voters than the least populous rural seats. However, even with this slight rural weighting, Adelaide now elected a majority of the legislature, making it a near-certainty that Labor would win the next election. Indeed, the conventional wisdom was that Hall knew he was effectively handing the premiership back to Dunstan at the next election. When a snap election was called in 1970, Labor gained power as expected, with 53.3 percent of the two-party vote.
In 1973, Labor retained office with 54.5 percent of the two-party 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 two-party vote on 49.2 percent. Dunstan then instituted "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 two-party vote at 48 percent, a referendum was passed which added a "fairness clause" to electoral legislation, requiring the commission to redistribute seats with a view toward ensuring that party which receives a majority of the statewide two-party vote at the forthcoming election should win the two-party vote in a majority of seats. Much of the Liberal vote still remains in ultra-safe rural seats.
Labor would hold power between 1970 and 1993, excepting a one-term 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 since the end of the Playmander has been based in part on the strength of its dominance in Adelaide. South Australia is the most centralised state in Australia, with Adelaide now accounting for over 80 percent of its population. Successive redistributions have resulted in Adelaide being split between 34 seats, making it difficult to form even a minority government without a strong base in Adelaide. Most of the Liberal vote is locked up in comfortably safe rural seats. In the 2014 election, for instance, Labor only won 47 percent of the statewide two-party vote to the Liberals' 53 percent. However, the Liberals only won 12 of the 34 urban seats. While only four of their 14 safe two-party seats were located in Adelaide, all eight non-safe (<10 percent) seats were in Adelaide. Overall, the election resulted in a hung parliament with 23 seats for Labor and 22 for the Liberals. The balance of power rested with the two crossbench independents, Bob Such and Geoff Brock. Such did not indicate who he would support in a minority government before he went on two months' medical leave for a brain tumour which he would die from in the ensuing months. With 24 seats required to govern, Brock subsequently supported Labor. It is the longest-serving state Labor government in South Australian history and is the second time that Labor has won four consecutive state elections in South Australia, the first occurred when Dunstan led Labor to four consecutive victories between 1970 and 1977. Labor achieved majority government when Nat Cook won the 2014 Fisher by-election triggered by Such's death. If Labor is still in office by the 2018 election, it will have been in office for a record 16 years.
One element of the Playmander still exists to this day - the existence of single-member districts. Each Labor period of government since the end of the Playmander had at least one comprehensive win (1977, 1985 and 2006) allowing often-Liberal seats to be won by Labor candidates who then built up incumbency and personal popularity. Examples in 2014 were Mawson, Newland and Light, and additionally in 2010, Bright and Hartley – all gained at the 2006 election landslide. Mawson in fact swung toward Labor in 2010 and 2014 despite the statewide trend. The bellwether seat of Colton was retained by Labor. Furthermore, metropolitan Liberal seats and booths had single and double digit swings against them.
Such's seat of Fisher and Brock's district of Frome would have had decisive Liberal majorities in "traditional" two-party matchups in 2014. Counting the seats won by the independents, 24 seats returned Liberal two-party votes and 23 returned Labor two-party votes, so the "fairness clause" was met. In 2014, referring to the 1989 fairness legislation, Weaterill said "Complaining about the rules when you designed the rules I think sits ill on the mouth of the Liberal Party", while Electoral Commissioner Kay Mousley said it was an "impossible" task for the Boundaries Commission to achieve the legislated requirement, stating "It is a constitutional requirement, and until the constitution gets changed, I must say I find it a very inexact science". Additionally, she had previously stated in 2010 "Had the Liberal Party achieved a uniform swing it would have formed Government. The Commission has no control over, and can accept no responsibility for, the quality of the candidates, policies and campaigns."
|% (seats)||ALP||LCL||IND||OTH||ALP 2PP||LCL 2PP|
|1973||51.52 (26)||39.79 (20)||4.32||4.37 (1)||54.5||45.5|
|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 (14)||36.45 (21)||11.10 (4)||1.60||53.0||47.0|
|1950||48.09 (12)||40.51 (23)||10.07 (4)||1.34||48.7||51.3|
|1947||48.64 (13)||40.38 (23)||6.20 (3)||4.77||48.0||52.0|
|1944||42.52 (16)||45.84 (20)||6.64 (3)||5.00||53.3||46.7|
|1941||33.25 (11)||37.55 (20)||29.20 (8)||0.00|
|1938||26.16 (9)||33.44 (15)||39.73 (14)||0.66 (1)|
|1933||27.78 (6)||34.62 (29)||13.41 (3)||24.19 (8)|
|Source: Australian Government and Politics Database and ABC for 2PP
Labor's winning pendulum
Labor's statewide two-party-preferred vote at the 1965 election remained unchanged at 54.3 percent, barely winning for the first and only time during the 32-year Playmander, with just a two-seat majority government. Labor won the seats of Glenelg and Barossa at the 1965 election, after winning the seats of Chaffey and Unley at the 1962 election. At the 1968 election the LCL won the seats of Murray and Chaffey and formed a one-seat minority government. If just 21 LCL votes were Labor votes in Murray in 1968, Labor would have formed majority government. The LCL won only three metropolitan seats in 1965 and 1968 – Burnside, Mitcham and Torrens. The most populous metropolitan seats (13) had as much as 5-10 times the number of voters than the least populous rural seats (26), despite around two-thirds of the population located in the metropolitan area − at the 1968 election the rural seat of Frome had 4,500 formal votes, while the metropolitan seat of Enfield had 42,000 formal votes. Enlarged from 39 to 47 prior to the 1970 election, the House was also transformed to 28 metropolitan seats and 19 rural seats, an increase of 15 metropolitan seats, more than double. At the 1965 election Labor held eleven of 26 rural seats, by the 1977 election Labor held just two of 14 rural seats. Since the 1985 election there have been 34 metropolitan seats and 13 rural seats. On the below boundaries, with voting patterns from either the Labor landslide at the 2006 election, or the more balanced result at the 2014 election, Labor would regardless hold about just ten of 39 seats.
|LABOR SEATS (21)|
|West Torrens||Glen Broomhill||ALP||6.8%|
|Mount Gambier||Allan Burdon||ALP||10.6%|
|Adelaide||Sam Lawn||ALP||28.2% v DLP|
|Hindmarsh||Cyril Hutchens||ALP||30.1% v DLP|
|Port Adelaide||John Ryan||ALP||30.6% v DLP|
|Semaphore||Reg Hurst||ALP||32.5% v DLP|
|Whyalla||Ron Loveday||ALP||34.4% v DLP|
|Stuart||Lindsay Riches||ALP||37.7% v IND|
|Port Pirie||Dave McKee||ALP||39.4% v IND|
|LCL SEATS (17)|
|Rocky River||James Heaslip||LCL||16.6%|
|Yorke Peninsula||James Ferguson||LCL||19.5%|
|CROSSBENCH SEATS (1)|
|Ridley||Tom Stott||IND||16.9% v ALP|
- Labor and Liberal Parties, SA, Dean Jaensch, "A 2:1 ratio of enrolments in favour of the rural areas was in force from 1936."
- "Gerrymander in SA.". The Canberra Times (ACT : 1926 - 1995) (ACT: National Library of Australia). 31 August 1976. p. 2. Retrieved 2 November 2014.
- Liberals blocked by unfair boundaries, says Downer: The Australian 17 March 2014
- "Draft Redistribution Report". Electoral Commission of South Australia. 12 August 2011. Retrieved 9 June 2012.
- 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.