THE May 1967 referendum that gave equal rights to Aboriginal Australians is rightly seen as a major step along the road to full reconciliation. But the Aboriginal question was not the only question asked that day. Indeed, it was the second question.
The first was a constitutional change that would have given Parliament the power to increase the size of the House of Representatives, which was resoundingly voted down, despite the support the Liberals, the Country Party (as the Nationals were known at the time) and Labor had given it.
Nearly half a century on, that ‘‘no’’ vote may be about to make its presence felt in the Hunter Region, with a population-based redistribution looking like it might strip a seat from this part of the world to give it to Western Australia.
And it’s all to do with the ‘‘nexus’’ question of 1967, as it was called.
Section 24 of the Australian constitution says the number of members of the House of Representatives ‘‘shall be, as nearly as practical, twice the number of the senators’’.
As things stand, Australia has 76 senators: 12 from each of the six states and two each from the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory.
Thanks to a population-based quota system used by the Australian Electoral Commission, the total number of MPs at the moment is 150, rather than 152, which a strict mathematical doubling would give.
Tasmania is guaranteed five MPs by the same constitutional section 24, even though its population at the moment means it should only have three.
When the electoral commission did its population-based sums last year, six of the eight states stayed the same but WA was granted an extra MP, and NSW was stripped of one.
The Sandgropers, who perennially whinge that the rest of the country is inclined to forget about them and ignore their enormous contribution to the national wealth, were understandably happy. An extra voice in Canberra!
But in NSW, it meant the major parties casting about for someone to throw overboard.
Mathematics is the main consideration.
As electoral commissioner Kevin Kitson said when inviting public submissions in April, the redistribution ‘‘must ensure the number of electors in each division meets strict numerical criteria’’.
But the redistribution must also consider ‘‘communities of interest, means of communications and travel, and the physical features and area of the proposed divisions’’.
Just as well, because if it was on numbers alone, we’d be shot ducks up here.
Next time someone tells you how strongly the Hunter is growing, I’d suggest you direct them towards the enrolment statistics. I know we love living here, but the figures show – as I have pointed out in previous columns – that the big population growth is all to the south of us. Our electorates have some the lowest enrolments in the state.
As a result, all of the major parties argue that Hunter Region political boundaries will change, and substantially.
The Liberal Party and the National Party both say get rid of Joel Fitzgibbon’s seat of Hunter. Labor has Bob Baldwin’s seat of Paterson in its sights. The Greens would move Hunter further east and push Paterson north into the electorate of Lyne, which would disappear.
All four of the submissions are more complicated than that, but you get the picture.
At present, the Hunter has five federal seats: Charlton, Hunter, Newcastle, Shortland and Paterson. If the government gets its way, the Hunter, with a population of about 650,000, will end up with four MPs.
Tasmania, meanwhile, will retain its five MPs with a population of just 515,000.
And on top of that, it has 12 senators!
Senators are statewide representatives, I know, but the closest I can find to a Newcastle senator would be Arthur Sinodinos, and he left home 35 or so years ago.
Looking at those numbers, I can’t help thinking that Tasmania is looking somewhat over-governed, while we in the Hunter are lacking political representation.
Then again, you could always argue the fewer pollies, the better.