The recently reported report of the census findings has confirmed what has actually been apparent for a long time: the ACT is significantly under-represented in the federal parliament.
Tasmania received special treatment in the process of federation. This was because as a small jurisdiction their voice could be drowned out if they did not have a guaranteed minimum of representation. In the House of Representatives this flies in the face of one vote-one value but it is a given in the federal constitution and will not change.
In the Senate however there has never been even a pretence of voter equality. This is also the case in the US Senate as the original idea was that senators would represent state interests rather than party interests. This has long been swamped by the reality of party-based voting and representation. However, the Tasmanian voices in the party room have given Tasmania a disproportionate influence.
The reality is that the ACT, as a similarly small jurisdiction has no such representation and this deserves examination.
The census shows that Tasmania, with a population of 557,571 and a total of 17 members and senators has one federal representative for every 32,798 residents.
The next smallest ratio is the Northern Territory which has one representative per 58,151 residents. The characteristics of their population give them more need for a parliamentary voice than any other jurisdiction.
The next lowest ratio is not the ACT, but South Australia, which has a total of 22 representatives for a population of 1,781,516, which amounts to one federal representative per 80,978 residents.
The ACT comes next with five representatives for 454,499 residents, which amounts to one representative per 90,899.
This is comparable to Western Australia which has one per 98,519 but which, as a result of the census is likely to regain a seat. This would reduce the WA ratio to 1:95,001.
I am against adjusting the House any more than has been done already with the constitutional guarantee for Tasmania and the two-seat minimum for the Northern Territory. The principle of one vote-one value is a significant underpinning of representative democracy and should be maintained as far as possible.
This leaves room for adjustment in the Senate.
There seem to me to be three issues with regard to the case for an increase in ACT Senate representation, beyond the fundamental question of whether it should occur at all, which I hope I have answered already. It seems to me to be impossible to justify South Australia having a lower ratio of federal representatives than the ACT.
The first question is whether the number should be increased to three or four.
The second is whether the term should be adjusted to coincide with the fixed terms of all state senators.
The third question is whether the increase should also apply to the Northern Territory.
There is a necessary overlap between the first two questions.
Should the ACT be granted three senators this would reduce the ratio of representatives to population to 1:75,749. Four would reduce it to 1:64,928.
On the face of it this suggests that three would be a more appropriate number. However, the anomaly by which territory senators are elected on House of Representative terms raises some other questions. The current arrangements are a result of Gough Whitlam's obsession with simultaneous elections. This is not a bad idea but it makes no sense to have four senators elected on one set of arrangements and the other 72 on a different set.
If we merely move the territory senators to fixed terms that shouldn't significantly change the case for the size of any increase. However, if they move to fixed six year terms like all other senators this would suggest four senators to allow for two to be elected each three years.
This is the proposition which is more likely to settle the question for a long time. If we simply move to three senators on the current arrangements the glaring anomaly will remain.
Political reality suggests whatever arrangement is agreed should also apply to the Northern Territory. The characteristics of their population also support the case that if anyone deserves extra representation it should be northern territorians.
I have not discussed the likely partisan consequences of either of the possible changes.
This is much harder to predict than the casual observer might suggest. When options change voters are quite capable of responding in different ways from their past behaviour.
My experience is that trying to change electoral laws for partisan advantage is not only wrong in principle, it doesn't work. The voters will find you out.
However, there should be enough room in the proposed changes to allow for bipartisan support provided the Liberals are capable of selecting an electable candidate in the ACT.
I suggest that the four senator option, with two elected each three years for a six-year term is the better option.
However, whichever option is preferred the case for more territory senators is strong and there is the serious possibility of bipartisan support at this time which may not re-occur.
Therefore, I suggest we strike now while the recent Senate result and the anomaly exposed by the census is front of mind.
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