Denial Breeds Denial

One of the things I consider hugely important about the climate change debate is that refusal to face the facts on one issue can breed a tendency to not face reality on other topics. If, like many US Republicans, you choose to believe the Earth is less than 10,000 years old it becomes much easier to also believe the scientists are lying to you about what is happening to the planet’s thermostat.

This happens on an individual level – if you’re used to dismissing scientists as pointy headed liberals you’re already half way to rejecting what they say on another topic. However, it is even more true on a group level. Any organisation that welcomes in denialists will tend to see those who prefer to face reality walk out the other door. We saw this in the 2012 US elections with Romney’s refusal to face up to the polls, reportedly to the point of not preparing a concession speech. No one faces the world objectively, but some are a bit more honest about it than others.

I’ve encountered a vaguely related example that shows how far the Liberal Party is down the same path. One of the reasons Romney could not accept the polling evidence was a refusal to face up to the way America has changed, with increasing numbers of non-white and non-hetrosexual populations that were not very amenable to his rhetoric.

It seems the Liberal Party, at least in Victoria, are in denial about an even more basic form of demographics – where people live.

Victoria is going through a state electoral redistribution, where the boundaries of electorates are redrawn to reflect changes in population. From now on these will happen every eight years, but on this occasion the lower house boundaries have stood for 12. In that time the population has changed a lot. Whole new suburbs have sprung up to the north and west of Melbourne, while the population of parts of Northern Victoria has declined while other areas have barely changed. The point of the redistribution is to create boundaries that reflect this, and to some extent look forwards to the changes that will happen over the next 8 years.

These changes are not good for the Liberals. The vast majority of the growth has happened in Labor seats – either on the northern and western fringes or in the inner city. Meanwhile it is mostly Liberal or National seats that have seen the least growth. The are exceptions – the Liberal seat of Bass has grown rapidly, but it is inevitable that any redistribution will create new electorates in the rapidly growing areas where the ALP is dominant and will abolish electorates in places that are either Liberal strongholds or fairly mixed.

To illustrate this at the broadest scale, Victoria is divided by the Yarra and Great Dividing Range. At the moment no lower house electorates straddle this divide, and there is a high chance this will continue. At the moment there are 45 electorates north of the divide, of which Labor holds 33, and 43 to the south, of which Labor holds 10. However, since 2001 population growth has been much faster on the north side than the south. In consequence, enrolment on the north side is now large enough to make up just over 46 electorates. Logically speaking this presents the commission with a choice. They could create one additional electorate on the north side and abolish one on the south, to bring the numbers as near as possible into balance with the current situation. Alternatively, they could look forwards and recognise that the continuing growth imbalance means that the north side will have enough people to justify 47 electorates less than half way through the time the new boundaries are meant to last. In this case they would be expected to create two new seats to the north and abolish two to the south.

Any new seats on the north side are likely to be in strongly Labor areas, although those abolished could be either Liberal electorates or marginal Labor ones. It makes sense therefore for the Liberals to try to limit the damage, proposing only one extra on the north side, a highly defensible position.

However, this is not what they have done. Instead they have proposed that no new electorates be created at all, and likewise that none be abolished. Although they have trimmed the largest electorates by enrolment down a little their submission to the independent boundaries commission has the areas in which fastest growth is occurring having on average higher enrolments than slower growing areas. Modeling done for the commission predicts that one electorate the Liberals propose will have 55% more voters five months before the 2018 election than the state average, while another will have 16% less than the average – not much more than half the first one’s side. Inevitably, the overblown electorates are safe for the ALP while most of the undersized seats are Liberal, although the worst example is in National hands.

It’s hard to see the commission taking this seriously. Party submissions are always based on party interests. I wrote most of the Greens one, and I can hardly claim to be a disinterested observer. A number of the proposals I have made would be very beneficial to the Greens if adopted. Nevertheless, I have tried to face reality. For example, it would be bad for the Greens chances of holding our current seats if Pascoe Vale was removed from the Western Metropolitan Legislative Council region, but I have proposed exactly that. Why? Because it makes so much sense in terms of the changes that are occurring across the state that I figured it would discredit the Greens’ submission if I didn’t do it. The Liberals seem entirely untroubled by equivalent considerations. They attempt to justify their proposals with claims that certain areas of the eastern and southern suburbs are about to experience population booms, despite the fact that this is in contradiction with both the modelling by the Department of Planning and the construction that is actually occurring.*

The commission will release draft boundaries in late June, and the final set will come out after the Federal election. I have no idea how many, if any, of my proposals will be adopted. Nevertheless, I don’t think there is much to ridicule in what I have suggested, some messy boundaries in the Dandenongs aside. On the other hand, the whole Liberal submission looks so nonsensical that it is hard to see much being accepted. There are a few micro-recommendations that may get up, particularly in areas where natural boundaries are so strong they can’t steer too far from reality. However, in general it looks like the Liberals have wasted a lot of time and effort (and believe me these things take plenty of time and effort) on something that simply can’t be taken seriously.

What is the guess that the people who wrote this submission also do not believe that carbon dioxide warms the atmosphere or that sound from wind turbines follows the same patterns of spread as other waves?

*I have my own issues with the DPCD projections, considering them too low in the inner city. However, I can back this up with two sets of facts. On the one hand building permits issued for the areas I am concerned about are far more rapid than the projections suggest, and on the other buildings are already going up in some places (for example Richmond and East Brunswick) where the projections are for low growth. The Liberals, on the other hand, can merely support their claims by saying they are introducing planning changes that will encourage infill in certain areas, with no evidence anything will occur within the timeframe the redistribution is designed to cover.

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About Stephen Luntz

I am a science journalist, specialising in Australian and New Zealand research across all fields of science. My book, Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats: A Field Guide to Australian Scientists is out now through CSIRO Publishing. I am also a professional returning officer for non-government organisations. I'm very politically active, but generally try to restrict this blog to scientific matters.
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