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The Queensland Electoral System

The State is divided into 89 electorates each returning one Member to a single chamber (unicameral) legislature – the Legislative Assembly.

The Electoral Districts Act 1992 allows five country seats - Cook, Mount Isa, Charters Towers, Gregory, Warrego - to retain a system of vote weightage because their areas are above 100,000 sq kms. Universal adult suffrage applies, which means eligible voters have to be Australian citizens who have attained the age of 18 years and who have been resident in an electoral district for at least one month.

Enrolment and voting are compulsory, the latter being by secret ballot. Optional preferential or contingent voting is used as the method of voting, i.e., electors have the choice of directing a vote exclusively to one candidate, or of indicating partially or completely their preferences for other candidates on the ballot paper. Elections are held every three years, although a Government may face the electors earlier if defeated on a vote of confidence in the Parliament, or if it chooses to do so for tactical reasons.

Pre-separation

Prior to Queensland’s foundation in 1859, the New South Wales Legislative Council (and after 1855, the Legislative Assembly) was responsible for the area’s representation. In 1842, one Member, Alexander Macleay, a resident of Sydney, was the sole representative for the Moreton Bay District. As further exploration opened up the northern districts for settlement, representation in the New South Wales legislature increased accordingly - four Members (1851), five Members (1856), six Members (1857), nine Members (1859).

Post-separation

Elections held in 1860 for Queensland’s first Parliament were based on a limited franchise, i.e., adult males, natural born or naturalised citizens, possessing certain property qualifications. Although electors of the New South Wales legislature, from 1858, enjoyed universal manhood suffrage, Queensland citizens were denied this extended franchise because of an outdated section in the originating Order-in-Council. Therefore, the 26 Members elected for 16 electoral districts - three three-Member electorates, four two-Member electorates and nine single-Member electorates - were basically representative of the pastoral and business classes. Counting of the votes was simple majority or first past the post and candidates could be elected on nomination day by a show of hands, unless a poll was demanded by a nominee or by not fewer than six electors in the electoral district. Plural voting also applied, i.e., qualified electors who owned property in more than one electoral district could cast their votes accordingly. Thus, the history of electoral change in Queensland, resulting in the present electoral system, is primarily concerned with alterations to voting methods and electoral boundaries.

Voting methods

In 1872, Queensland finally caught up with New South Wales and introduced universal manhood suffrage. However, women were not granted the vote until 1905 and another decade passed before they were allowed to stand for Parliament. Along with the introduction of adult suffrage, the 1905 Act eliminated plural voting. In 1914, the Denham Liberal Government became the first State Government to introduce compulsory enrolment and compulsory voting. Extension of the franchise tended to reflect changes to society’s attitudes, as persons of other races were admitted from the 1930s, including Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders on a voluntary basis (1965) and by compulsory registration (1971). In 1973, the voting age was lowered from 21 years to 18.

The method of counting votes has also undergone changes. In 1892, because of the burgeoning Labor vote, the Griffith-McIlwraith Government introduced the electoral system that is operating today, i.e., optional preferential or contingent voting. When, in 1942, splinter group preferences threatened the Labor Government’s hold on power, the system was converted back to the original simple majority method. Again, after a change of Government, the Country-Liberal coalition, in 1962, legislated for preferential voting, which, at that time, brought Queensland into line with the Commonwealth and the other States and lasted up until the 1992 election, when, after a review by and recommendations from the Electoral and Administrative Review Commission (EARC), optional preferential voting was reintroduced.

Electoral boundaries

The various systems defining Queensland’s electoral district boundaries, especially since 1949, have tended to provoke contention. From 1860 until 1910, electoral districts outside the capital encompassed smaller enrolments and, except for a brief six year period (1872-1878) included multi–representative districts. In 1910, the Kidston Government divided the State into 72 single-Member constituencies with a tolerance of 20 per cent above and below the State average, producing a relatively fair system. Under the Moore Conservative (1931) and the Forgan Smith Labor (1935) Governments, the number of electorates was reduced to 62 and a degree of vote weightage introduced for rural areas.

However, in 1949, the Hanlon Labor Government increased the Parliament to 75 and introduced the controversial zonal system, whereby the State was divided into four zones - Metropolitan, South-eastern, Northern and Western - with vote weightages ranging from 4,000 electors in rural zones to 12,000 in the metropolitan. After the defeat of Labor in 1957, the Country-Liberal coalition, which originally opposed the zonal introduction, decided to retain the system and, in 1958, increased the Parliament to 78 Members, but reduced the number of zones to three.

Under Premier Bjelke-Petersen, the four-zonal system was resurrected in 1971 and further refinements on this basis occurred in the redistributions of 1977 and 1985. The number of Members also increased to 82 in 1977 and to 89 in 1985. Over this period, many criticisms focussed on the vote weightages between the country and the city zones, as well as the artificial demarcation of rural areas away from the provincial cities. However, in 1989, the ALP won Government on the electoral boundaries allocated by the 1985 redistribution.

Further redistributions of the State electoral district boundaries occurred in 1991 and 1999.

Electoral reform

In 1989, the Fitzgerald Commission of Inquiry Report recommended an overhaul of Queensland’s electoral laws. Subsequently, the Goss Labor Government, acting upon the Electoral and Administrative Review Commission’s Report into Queensland’s electoral system, introduced legislation which established the Electoral Commission of Queensland as an overseeing body; eliminated the zonal system; reintroduced optional preferential voting; and provided for future redistributions which would maintain electoral equality.

See Also - Electoral Commission of Queensland (opens in a new window)