The 1966 redistribution had demonstrated flaws in the electoral zones in use since 1949.
Outer metropolitan Sydney was beginning to overflow beyond the defined boundaries of the Sydney Zone. If there was a justification for a Country Zone with a lower enrolment quota, it was being undermined by the zone including increasingly urban seats on the edge of Sydney. As had occurred with Casino in the previous redistribution, rapid population growth on Sydney’s periphery was leading to the abolition of rural districts far from the city.
The triennial Legislative Council election in 1967, together with the Askin Government’s second victory in 1968, had substantially weakened the Labor Party’s ability to block legislation in the Legislative Council. In March 1969, the Government introduced amendments to the Parliamentary Electorates and Elections Act. These were the most fundamental changes to the Act since Labor’s 1949 amendments.
Amongst the changes, the number of seats in the Legislative Assembly was increased from 94 to 96. On the grounds that redistributions had been conducted too frequently in the past, the new Act specified there was to be an interval of six years between redistributions. The permitted variation from quota was reduced from 20% to 15% and new provisions were inserted to require the Electoral Districts Commissioners to take account of the distance from the seat of government, the density of the population and demographic trends. The first two of these criteria clearly permitted the Commissioners to draw smaller seats in the outlying rural parts of the State.
More importantly, the new Act re-drew the zone boundaries. The Country Zone was reduced from 46 to 33 seats, but at the same time the average enrolment was reduced from 21 698 at the 1968 election to 20 225 in 1971. The new lower quota resulted in two new seats being created in the country. The 48 seat Sydney Zone was abolished, replaced by a 63 seat Central Zone that now included the lower Hunter, Central Coast, Illawarra as well as an expanded Sydney metropolitan area. Enrolment in the Central Zone at the 1971 election was 29 039, an increase from 28 310 in the Sydney Zone in 1968. The critical change was the expansion of the Central Zone. Fifteen seats previously in the low quota Country Zone were transferred to the high quota Central Zone. Ten of these 15 seats were held by Labor, but in the Central Zone, these 15 seats became 11. This abolished seats north and south of Sydney where Labor was strong while allowing new seats to be created in Sydney, especially on the urban fringe.
The final details of the redistribution triggered by the new legislation were released in April 1970. The Country Zone saw the re-creation of Casino and Sturt, both abolished by the previous redistribution. However, Sturt was now a safe Coalition seat in the State’s south. The Coalition had successfully convinced the Electoral Districts Commission to retain Labor-voting Broken Hill in a single seat. The new Central Zone quota resulted in the Hunter seats of Hamilton and Kahibah being replaced by the single seat of Charlestown. A new safe Liberal seat of Davidson was created on Sydney’s North Shore, the new Labor seat of Mt Druitt merely compensating Labor for the abolition of inner-city Randwick.
The new arrangements favoured the Government. A vote in the Country where the Coalition held the great majority of seats was worth two-thirds of one in the Central area. New seats had been created in Coalition voting rural areas, while seats had been abolished in Labor’s stronghold of Newcastle. Colin Hughes’ work mentioned earlier estimated that the pro-Coalition bias in the State’s electoral boundaries increased from 2% at the 1968 poll to 6% in 1971.
The Government appeared to be in trouble in the lead up to the 1971 election. A by-election in Georges River in Sydney’s south in September 1970 saw the Liberal Party loose the seat with a swing of 11% against it. Commonwealth-State financial relations were a major source of conflict. If Askin was expecting a sympathetic attitude from Prime Minister John Gorton as a fellow Liberal he was quickly disillusioned. The Commonwealth’s parsimony forced Askin to run a significant deficit and raise taxes and charges. Cost of living increases became a major issue in the campaign. Education was a difficult area for Askin, with the Teachers’ Federation campaigning unremittingly against the Government. The popularity of the Federal ALP under Gough Whitlam benefited the State Opposition.
When the election was eventually held in February 1971, the Government suffered significant reverses. On the edge of Sydney the Liberal Party lost Gosford, Nepean, Campbelltown and Wollongong, the party suffering significant swings in many outer suburban seats. More surprisingly, the Country Party lost two seats, Burrendong to its former Labor MP Leo Nott, and Casino to Labor’s Don Day. Having gone to such effort to have Casino re-created, divisions in local Country Party branches delivered victory to the popular Day, anger at the lack of access for local dairy farmers to the Sydney milk market also playing into Labor’s hands. Labor won 51% of the two-party preferred vote. The Coalition’s victory was due in large part to the new electoral boundaries. The Government was returned with a small but workable majority, 49 of the 96 seats, assisted by the presence of two pro-Government Independents. AG