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Criticism of critics of the Fitzgerald Report

MALCOLM MACKERRAS: Who will criticise the critics? I will. On Monday, July 3, there was brought down, in Brisbane, a document known as the report of a Commission of Inquiry Pursuant to Orders in Council, popularly known as the Fitzgerald Report.

I have a simple comment to make on that which is that I have no criticism to offer of that report or of Tony Fitzgerald personally. I also have no criticism to offer of the way in which Premier, Mike Ahern, is implementing that report. However, I do criticise the critics. Of course, I don't know much about crime or police corruption, therefore I exempt from criticism commentators like Bob Bottom and John Slee.

I do know a lot about electoral systems, and my thoughts are these. I object to the way commentators talk about the Queensland electoral gerrymander. That particular beast is like the Loch Ness monster - its existence is a matter of opinion and allegation, not of fact. So let these commentators talk of the alleged gerrymander, or the so-called Queensland gerrymander.

When I express the opinion that the Queensland gerrymander does not exist, a critic will ask me whether or not it is a fact that, at the 1986 election, some 23,000 voters were enrolled in Manly, and only 8,000 in Roma. My answer is: yes, that is a fact, and the disparities will be even greater at the forthcoming election. That is what I pedantically call an electoral malapportionment. A gerrymander is more than that. It means the deliberate rigging of boundaries by the party in power in order to make it exceptionally difficult for the voters to kick that party out. If, as is alleged, the Queensland National Party ever did so, it did a very poor job of work. The truth is that it is not abnormally difficult for Queensland voters to kick the Nationals out.

There is no perfect electoral system, but the great majority of Australian lower house members are elected by single-member constituencies, so gerrymandering is possible, but it is much less common than most people imagine. There is no perfect set of maps. There will always be some unintentional bias which is easily measurable. All you need to do is to calculate the difference between the aggregate two-party preferred vote, at the most recent election, and the vote in the median seat on the electoral pendulum.

Victoria comes out best, a 1.4 bias in favour of Labor; Queensland comes out second best, a 1.5 bias against Labor. The others have a pro-Labor bias, 1.7 for the Commonwealth, 2.0 for South Australia, 3.5 for New South Wales, and 3.6 for Western Australia.

In my opinion, therefore, it is plausible to allege that the Western Australian Labor Government gerrymandered its way back into office. It won the election in February 1989, notwithstanding the fact that 52 per cent of the two-party preferred vote was cast in favour of Liberal/National and only 48 per cent for Labor. To state the matter baldly, the allegation of gerrymandering cannot be made against any other existing government in Australia.

So, to return to Queensland, the gerrymander is as much a matter of myth as the Loch Ness monster. Contrary to what you may have heard, Tony Fitzgerald made no recommendation, one way or another, on whether or not there should be a redistribution prior to the forthcoming election. In my opinion, that election should be held using the existing maps. There is no good argument for mucking everyone around at this late stage by changing all the boundaries. However, during the life of the next Queensland Parliament, there should be a redistribution of seats conducted in accordance with the procedures recommended by Tony Fitzgerald.