Australia and Pacific

Melbourne Vs. Sydney Revisited

Australia is an unusual country in having two metropolitan areas of roughly equal population that overshadow all others. As the tables posted below show, Melbourne and Sydney each have around five million inhabitants, roughly twice as many as third-ranking Brisbane. It is also not entirely clear which metropolis is larger. Although Sydney has generally received the honor, Melbourne is growing more rapidity and has reportedly “snatched back its crown as Australia’s largest city, knocking Sydney off the top spot.” (Different population figures are derived from different way of spatially delimiting the metro area.)

Few other countries have such dual top cities. The only one that come readily to my mind is Vietnam; Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) both have around eight million inhabitants, with the next largest, Haiphong, coming in at only two million. Such urban duality can lead to sharp cultural rivalry, which is indeed the case in both Australia and Vietnam.

Given their shared top position, Melbourne and Sydney’s differences are worth exploring. As a recent GeoCurrents post noted, Melbourne leans much more to the political left. But how else do they differ? Internet queries deliver mostly tourist-oriented information, focused on climate, sights and scenery, and dining and nightlife. Cultural, social, and economic comparisons are more difficult to find. Several sources, however, note that Melbourne is less expensive, which might be one reason why it is growing more quickly:

The rental prices in Melbourne are a lot more affordable than those in Sydney, which is probably the best thing about Melbourne  when compared to Sydney. It is estimated that the rent for a one-bedroom apartment located in the central business district of Sydney will be approximately AUD $2,689 (US $2127) per month. The same thing in the Australian city of Melbourne will set you back approximately $1,725 (or $1,364 in US currency).

Elevated housing costs in Sydney reflect the fact that it is wealthier than Melbourne, as can be seen on the paired maps posted below. Note that the top three categories on the Sydney median-family-income map are missing from Melbourne, while the lowest one is missing from Sydney (in Melbourne it is limited to the far peripheral division of Indi). I also included Perth, Western Australia’s only metropolis, in this map set for broader comparative purposes; its income profile is much more like that of Melbourne than that of Sydney. I was surprised to see these lower income figures for Perth, as Western Australia is the country’s richest state on a per capita basis, with a much higher level of GDP per person than either New South Wales or Victoria (see below). Non-metropolitan regions of New South Wales, however, do generally have lower average incomes than non-metropolitan parts of Western Australia (compare, for example, WA’s sparsely settled but mineral-rich Pilbara and NSW’s agrarian New England on the map below).

 

 

The more important distinction in income between Sydney and Melbourne, however, is that of differentiation. Although Sydney’s wealthiest division are richer than those of Melbourne, Sydney’s poorest division are slightly poorer than those of Melbourne. The areas of greater Melbourne with median weekly household income below 1,600 Australian dollars are all located in the exurban fringe, whereas those of Sydney form one the city’s main suburban cores. One might expect such income differentiation to lead to a more leftwing voting pattern in Sydney, but the opposite situation holds.

The remaining set of maps show some relatively muted but still significant differences between Australia’s two largest cities. Regarding educational attainment, central Melbourne and central Sydney look quite similar, but Melbourne’s suburbs have a slightly larger percentage of college graduates. Suburban Sydney is somewhat more religious than suburban Melbourne, which reflects the fact that it has a higher percentage of people born outside Australia (see the first to maps below). Both central Melbourne and central Sydney, however, have large immigrant populations and low levels of religious belief. In both metro areas – and presumable across the country – peripheral divisions have mostly Australia-born populations. Regarding marital states, it is notable that Sydney’s wealthy northern suburbs report higher rates of marriage than any electoral divisions of Melbourne.

Melbourne Vs. Sydney Revisited Read More »

Australia’s Centrist Teal Alternative – and a Possible Center-Populist Alternative to the Alternative

The center-right Australian Liberal Party has long been a major political force, leading Australia’s government, in coalition with the agrarian-focused National Party, from 2013 to 2022. In 2022, however, it suffered a sharp reversal, losing 17 seats in the House of Representatives. Most of these losses were in wealthy inner-suburban electoral division in major metropolitan areas – historically the party’s main bases of power. The residents of these areas, however, have become more leftwing on social and cultural issues than the party as a whole, and they are much more concerned about climate change. Although some of these former Liberal strongholds turned to the center-left Labour Party, others opted for so-called Teal independents. While the Teals are strongly committed to countering climate change and upholding leftwing social values, they retain the Liberal Party’s more conservative economic outlook. Their “teal” label reflects these ideological commitments, as the color combines blue, symbolizing the Liberal Party, and green, symbolizing, of course, the Green Party.

The seven Teal independents who now sit in Australia’s House of Representatives are an interesting group. They are, by U.S. standards at least, relatively young, but they are also very accomplished. Several have had high-level executive careers, and two are scions of noted political dynasties. As befits sports-besotted Australia, a few of them are celebrated athletes. But what is more remarkable is that they are all women. (The slides posted below provide basic information on the seven Teal MPs.)

Although women are over-represented, men are not absent from the Teal movement. In 2022, the Australian Capital Territory (Canberra, essentially) elected a Teal candidate, David Pocock, as one of its two senators. (The Australian Senate is less powerful than the House of Representatives, but it is significant.) Born and reared in Zimbabwe, Pocock fits the Teal model, as he was vice captain of Canberra’s professional rugby union team, the Brumbies, and was twice a finalist for the World Rugby association’s honor of “player of the year.” He is also a noted activist for environmental causes and same-sex marriage.

The Teal surge reveals some interesting and important developments in political philosophy that are not limited to Australia. Historically, most democratic countries have been dominated by two main political parties, one of which primarily represents the economic interest of the elites, and the other those of the working and lower-middle classes. But as the former party has typically been more socially and culturally conservative, it has also attracted some support from working-class voters, particularly those living outside of metropolitan areas. By the same token, as the latter party has typically been more socially and culturally leftwing, it has also attracted support from elite voters, particularly those living in urban areas. Such discrepant bases of support generate tensions and imbalances that can potentially lead to political realignments.

In the United States, the Republican Party has historically been more oriented toward elites and the Democratic Party more oriented toward the working class. These orientations began to shift after the social upheavals of the 1960s, as culturally conservative non-elites – “Reagan Democrats” – turned to the Republican Party while culturally progressive elites flocked to the Democratic Party. In the 1990s, Democratic president Bill Clinton further propelled this realignment by embracing Wall Street and corporate capitalism more generally and by deemphasizing the party’s traditional working-class base. Although both parties now encompass major contingents of both elite and non-elite voters, the balance has shifted. As maverick Democratic Party analyst Ruy Teixeira demonstrates, the Republican Party seems to be emerging as the first choice of the multi-ethnic working class. The Democratic Party, in contrast, now enjoys overwhelming support in the county’s wealthiest inner suburbs, once Republican bastions. (See, most recently, Teixeira & Judis, Where Have all the Democrats Gone?)

Political evolution, however, has worked out differently in Australia, where the Labour Party has remained more focused on working-class voters. As a result, wealthy inner suburbs long remained loyal to the “Tories” (Liberals). But emerging tensions between increasingly green and socially progressive elite voters and the more conservative party base and establishment could not be contained forever. But rather than opting for the more economically leftwing Labour Party, many residents of the country’s wealthiest areas turned instead to the more economically conservative Teal independents. As a result of this exodus, the Liberal Party now finds itself in an uncomfortable situation, with some observers thinking that it might be relegated to long-term minority status.

But Australia’s Labour Party has its own problems, as indicated by the decisive defeat of the Indigenous Voice referendum that it strongly supported. As it turns out, many of its leftwing social and cultural policies have limited support in the working-class and immigrant communities that form Labour’s main bulwarks. Climate policy might become a bigger problem. In 2022, Australia’s parliament passed a far-reaching act that “codifies a 43 per cent emissions reduction target by 2030 (on 2005 levels), requires the Climate Change Authority to provide advice on Australia’s progress against those targets, mandates that the Minister for Climate Change reports annually to Parliament on Australia’s progress, and forces federal government agencies to adhere to the legislative requirements of the Act.” If this act results in significantly higher energy prices coupled with reduced reliability, as conservative critics foresee, significant working-class defections from the Labour Party might follow.

But where could such disgruntled voters go? In the United States, the increasingly right-populist Republican Party is the choice of many who find themselves in the same situation. In Australia, however, the main right-populist party, Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, has been in decline for decades and currently has a negligible presence in government (two national senate seats, one seat in state and territory lower houses, and three seats in state and territory upper houses). Its stridently anti-immigration and anti-Asian stance precludes widespread support in the more socially conservative working-class suburbs that rejected the Indigenous Voice referendum, as they all have large immigrant population.

Perhaps a new party or political movement will emerge to represent the concerns of such voters and communities. The only existing possibility, to my knowledge, is the center-populist Dai Le & Frank Carbone Network, which was registered as a political party earlier this year. Tellingly, its two founders hail from the two main parties. Frank Carbone, formerly of the Labour Party, is currently mayor of the astoundingly diverse city of Fairfield – home to one of the world’s largest Assyrian Christian communities – while former Liberal Dai Le represents the spatially intersecting electoral division of Fowler in the Australian House of Representatives. She won this position in 2022 even though Fowler had been classified as one of Labour’s safest seats. Significantly, Le abstained from the Climate Change Bill of 2022, stating that “I support a cleaner and greener environment, but my main priority is making sure the high cost of living and unemployment rates in our area are stabilised – especially in these very tough economic times.”

Similarly, the stance of the Dai Le & Frank Carbone Network on the Indigenous Voice referendum was “unknown, undecided, ambiguous or neutral.” But after the measure’s defeat, Le, who came to Australia as a child refugee from Vietnam, pushed back at accusations that it revealed a deep strain of racism in the country. As she put it: “Of course, they are people who are racist, but it doesn’t mean Australia is a racist country. Far from it, we are … in the Southeast Asian region and we have become a multicultural country …  We are embracing that.”

Le also proudly embraces Australian patriotism. She symbolized this attitude by wearing an Australian-flag dress for her first Parliamentary speech (see below). In this emotional address, she praised the “freedom” and “endless possibilities” that Australia offers.

But although the Dai Le & Frank Carbone Network potentially represents a new force in Australian politics, its current ambitions are limited and local. As reported in the Wikipedia article on the new party:

The ideals espoused by Le and Carbone have had an emphasis on the Western Sydney region, a majority Labour-aligned area. Le stated to the Guardian Australia in May, following the party’s creation, “Our people… pay tolls and taxes, and yet the money doesn’t come back into building services and infrastructure for our community, we need to come together and build a stronger western Sydney voice for our community.” Further adding: “The end goal is to have representation for western Sydney, from people who are actually from western Sydney, live in western Sydney, understand the issues of western Sydney.” Party co-founder Frank Carbone, in an interview with Sydney’s 2GB said: “Ultimately we’re here for the people in the western suburbs, and, you know, the western suburbs is one of the largest economies in Australia and we just feel that a lot more needs to be done to actually improve the quality of life of people who live out here…”

Mainstream political parties in many countries are currently in some peril, losing voters, suffering from internal conflicts, and undergoing wild swings of fortune. Germany’s center-right Christian Democratic Union is currently polling at only around 29 percent in “national party voter intention,” while its rival center-left Social Democratic Party comes in at a miserable 16 percent. In the United Kingdom, the Conservative Party scored a stunning victory in 2019, gaining 48 seats in the House of Commons while the Labour Party lost 60; today the Conservatives are polling at less than 25 percent. In the United States, the presumptive nominees of both main parties are decidedly unpopular with the electorate at large, opening possibilities for third-party candidates of various stripes.

Although there are many reasons for such instability, I suspect that the dynamics explored above in the Australian context figure prominently. Historically, parties representing the economic interests of the elites were also socially and culturally conservative, regarding radical change in these areas as threatening the status quo that upheld their power. By the same token, parties representing the economic interests of the working and lower middle classes were open to change, and as result tended to be suspicious of conservatism across the board. Today, many working-class voters fear that radical cultural change threatens their standing, while many elites welcome it, viewing it as more liberatory than threatening. If such tendencies intensify, we could see politically mature democracies transform from political systems dominated by center-left and center-right mainstream parties to ones dominated instead by culturally progressive center-elite parties (“Teals”) and more culturally conservative center-populist parties (“Dai Le & Frank Carbonites”?). But it is probably more likely that we will see instead intensified chaos and the growth of parties and political movements of more extremist bents, whether left, right, or unclassifiable on a one-dimensional spectrum. I, for one, hope that the center holds, but I am not confident that it will.

Australia’s Centrist Teal Alternative – and a Possible Center-Populist Alternative to the Alternative Read More »

Australia’s Indigenous Voice Referendum Vote in Greater Melbourne

As noted in previous posts, Australian voters decisively rejected the Indigenous Voice referendum in October 2023. As our electoral analysis of greater Sydney revealed, many areas that usually support the Labour Party, which endorsed the measure, voted against it, some by a wide margin. By the same token, several electoral divisions that have historically supported the center-right Liberal Party, which opposed the measure, voted in favor of it. In general, the more wealthy and highly educated parts of Sydney voted “yes,” whereas the poorer divisions, and those with large numbers of immigrants, voted “no.”

Today’s post examines the same issues in the greater Melbourne region. As was also previously mentioned, Melbourne is considerably more leftwing than Sydney, and as a result it not surprising that it was more favorably disposed to the referendum. In the Melbourne area, as the map below shows, support tended to decline with distance from the urban core, with the central electoral division (Melbourne) voting 77 percent in its favor, the highest figure in the country.  As the second map show, the greater Melbourne region overwhelmingly supported the Labour Party in the 2022 parliamentary election, with the rival center-right Liberal Party taking only four seats, all of which are in the outer eastern suburbs and exurban fringe. The 2022 election, however, was unusual, as several traditionally Liberal-voting divisions turned either to Labour or to “Teal” independents, the latter being left on social and environmental issues, but center-right or centrist on economic and fiscal policies. Central Melbourne, in contrast, voted for the Green Party, as it has since 2010. Here Labour came in second place, with the Liberal party receiving only 15 percent of the vote.

As was the case in Sydney, many Labour-voting divisions in greater Melbourne rejected the Indigenous Voice referendum just as several traditionally Liberal-voting divisions supported it, thus going against the recommendations of the parties that their voters prefer. Such seemingly anomalous divisions are outlined on the map below. Here, Labour-voting districts (in 2022) that rejected the measure are enclosed with a heavy black line. They are found in two contiguous blocks, one to the east and north of the city, and the other to in southeast. To examine traditionally Liberal-voting districts that supported the measure, I turned to the 2019 election, which occurred before the rise of the Teal independents. As can be seen, this set of “anomalous” divisions are tightly clustered in Melbourne’s inner southeastern suburbs.

The same correlations between voting patterns and socio-economic indicators are found in Melbourne as in Sydney, but with a few minor differences. As the map below shows, the divisions that voted Liberal in 2019 yet supported the referendum are all characterized by relatively high median household incomes. Labour-voting districts with higher-than-average income levels also supported the measure, with the exception of peripheral McEwen, where Labour won by a relatively thin margin in 2022. Poorer divisions, whether Labour or Liberal (Flinders), generally voted “no.” An exception here is Fraser, a strongly Labour-voting area with a relatively low level of income that solidly supported the measure. Intriguingly, Fraser is known for its large population of Vietnamese birth (14.6 percent).

The map of educational attainment, showing the percentage of the population with a bachelor’s degree or higher, correlates well with both income and voting behavior. Highly educated divisions, regardless of their party preference, tended to support the Indigenous Voice referendum, while divisions with lower rates of education tended to reject it.

The next map, showing the percentage of the population that reported “no religion” in the 2021 census, corelates poorly with the map of the referendum vote. Highly irreligious districts are found both in metropolitan Melbourne’s center and periphery, with the former voting “yes” and the latter “no.” The most religious divisions, in contrast, voted “no,” even though all of them supported Labour in 2022. As was the case in Sydney, religiously inclined divisions are characterized by high percentages of residents born overseas. But irreligious, yes-voting central Melbourne also has a large immigrant population. But it also has a very young average age (31), and the youth vote was decidedly in the “yes” direction. Not surprisingly, Central Melbourne also has a low rate of marriage. Divisions with low marriage rates, which are clustered in the central Melbourne metropolitan area, voted in favor of the referendum.

The next post, second-t0-last in this series, will consider these finding in the light of Australia’s overarching political divisions, taking a close look at the rise of the Teal independents.

Australia’s Indigenous Voice Referendum Vote in Greater Melbourne Read More »

Explaining Seeming Anomalies in the Indigenous Voice Referendum Vote in Greater Sydney

In Australia’s 2023 Indigenous Voice Referendum (see the two previous posts), a significant number of solid Labour electoral divisions voted “no,” some by a significant margin, even though the Labour Party strongly supported the measure. It was a different story on the other side of Australia’s political divide. Only one division that voted for a party in the country’s conservative alliance in 2022 voted “yes” in 2023. That division was Bradfield in northern Sydney, a traditionally strong Liberal (center-right) constituency. But a handful of historical Liberal strongholds that had bucked the party for “teal” independents in 2022 also supported the referendum. We will examine the rise of Australia’s teal politicians – who are on the left regarding socio-cultural and environmental issues but are center-right economically, in a later post. For today, we will take a closer look at the seemingly anomalous electoral divisions in the Indigenous Voice referendum in the greater Sydney area. As always, we shall do so through cartographic analysis.

The first map shows the “yes” vote in the 2023 referendum. As can be seen, support was highest – by a significant margin – in the central urban area (the divisions of Sydney and Grayndler). The other “yes-voting” divisions are concentrated in the northeastern suburbs. (Reid, to the west of the urban core, is mapped as having supported the measure by a thin margin, reflecting the Wikipedia table used to make this map; many other sources, however, map Reid as having voted “no.”) The second map shows the local results of Australia’s 2022 parliamentary election. As can be seen, the “teal” divisions are also located in Sydney’s northeastern suburbs, all of which voted “yes” in the referendum. In contrast, Labour’s strongholds in 2022 were located in central Sydney and in the western suburbs, as has been the historical norm. The third map takes information from the second map and overlays it on the first, outlining the “anomalous” parts of Sydney in this election (“no-voting” Labor divisions and “yes-voting” Liberal (and teal) divisions. The same overlay will be employed in the remaining maps in today’s post.

As other sources have noted, level of education was a good predictor in the Indigenous Voice referendum. The next map cartographically examines this correlation. As can be seen, rates of college education are much higher in eastern Sydney than in the rest of the region. The most highly educated divisions either supported the measure or narrowly turned it down, with strongly Liberal Mitchell being the only significant exception. In Labour-voting divisions, those with high levels of education supported the referendum whereas those with low levels voted “no.” (The data used to make this map, like the rest others in this sequence, come from the 2021 Australian Census.)

 

Not surprisingly, the map of median household income correlates closely with that of educational attainment. Centrally located Sydney and Grayndler, however, have lower income levels than would  be expected from their educational profiles. This is partly due to their young populations; at 33, the median age in the Division of Sydney is tied for the lowest in the region mapped. The general message conveyed by this map is that relatively poor Labour-voting areas in suburban Sydney voted “no,” as did relatively poor Liberal-voting areas in the western exurban fringe. Wealthy electoral divisions, in contrast, either supported the measure or narrowly turned it down, with Mitchell again forming an exception. It is not coincidental that the two wealthiest divisions in Sydney form the epicenter of the “teal rebellion” against the Liberal Party.

Religion was another factor in the Indigenous Voice Referendum. As can be seen, the yes-voting areas of the center and northeast all reported high levels of “no religion” in the 2021 Australian census. Strikingly, the most irreligious divisions, Sydney and Grayndler, had the highest percentage of “yes” votes. In contrast, the divisions with the lowest percentages of non-religious residents all supported Labour in 2022 and all voted “no” in 2023.

The religiosity map loosely correlates with the map of people born in Australia. The divisions with the highest percentages of foreign-born residents are concentrated in central Sydney and in the relatively poor western suburbs. Those located in the west rejected the referendum, some by substantial margins. Many of these areas have large Muslim populations. Peripheral districts with high percentages of Australian-born residents also voted “no,” whereas those in the wealthier and more highly educated center and northeast voted “yes.”

 

The final map, showing marital status, is not as revealing. It does show, however, that divisions with low percentages of married people tended to vote “yes,” although one with a high marriage rate, Bradfield, voted “yes.” (Bradfield was Australia’s only Liberal-voting division in the 2022 election that supported the referendum). Intriguingly, the wealthiest divisions of Sydney have some of the region’s highest and lowest rates of marriage. It is perhaps not coincidental that Mitchell, the richest “no-voting” division, also has the region’s highest marriage rate.

These various patterns and correlations can tell us a lot about both Sydney’s electoral geography and the (changing?) ideological positions of Australia’s major parties. Before delving into these important issues, however, we will examine greater Melbourne through the same comparative-cartographic lens employed in today’s post.

 

Explaining Seeming Anomalies in the Indigenous Voice Referendum Vote in Greater Sydney Read More »

The Metropolitan Concentration of Support for Australia’s Indigenous Voice Referendum and the Melbourne/Sydney Divide

Australian electoral geography, like that of many other countries, is increasingly structured around the metropolitan-peripheral divide. Consider, for example, the map of the 2022 federal election in Western Australia and South Australia (below), in which Labour victories were limited to Perth and Adelaide. In the 2023 Indigenous Voice Referendum (see the previous post), this tendency was even more pronounced. A casual glance at the nationwide electoral map (second map below) might make it seem that two rural areas supported the measure, one in southern Tasmania and the other in inland southeastern New South Wales, but that is not the case. The sizable Tasmanian electoral division that supported the measure is demographically based in the suburbs of Hobart, the state’s main city. The other easily visible blue splotch on the map is the Australian Capital Territory, based in the relatively large city of Canberra (with a metropolitan population of almost half a million).

As a close examination of the results reveals, all 34 of the electoral division that supported the initiative are located in urban and suburban areas. Consider, for example, the election map (below) of New South Wales, Australia’s most populous state by a considerable margin. Six of the state’s eight division that voted “yes” are in Sydney, while the other two are in Newcastle and Wollongong, sizable cities in their own right that are close enough to Sydney to arguably be within its greater metropolitan ambit. (Newcastle is less than 100 miles from Sydney and has an urban population of half a million; Wollongong is 52 miles from Sydney and has an urban population of over 300,000).

A more interesting feature of this election, however, was the failure of the “yes” vote in some of Australia’s main areas of population concentration. Perth and Adelaide are both major cities, with metropolitan populations of 2.2 and 1.4 million respectively, that supported the Labour Party in the 2022 election. In the Indigenous Voice Referendum, however, only two of Perth’s divisions voted “yes.” None did so in Adelaide.

What is more even remarkable, however, is the concentration of the “yes” vote in just one city: Melbourne. Thirteen of the 34 electoral districts in the country that supported the measure are found in this metropolitan area. In greater Melbourne, all central-city and inner-suburban divisions voted “yes,” as did several outer-suburban ones. The contrast with Sydney, where many relatively densely populated, Labour-voting divisions soundly rejected the measure, is noteworthy.

This election’s voting patterns in both Sydney and Melbourne will be cartographically explored in subsequent posts. For now, I will merely forward some insightful observations on the different political climates of the two cities made by Nick Nicholas and posted on the Quora website in response to the question “Why is Melbourne more left wing/progressive politically than the rest of Australia?” In his reply, Nicholas focuses on the state level, comparing Victoria (VIC), which is demographically dominated by Melbourne, with New South Wales (NSW), which is demographically dominated by Sydney. Wisely shunning “recentism,” he notes that in from 1955 to 1972 “Victoria was the Tory stronghold, and NSW was Labor territory,” and then states that “It was only in 2018 that John Howard memorably said that VIC was “’the Massachusetts of Australia.’”

Intriguingly, Nicholas goes on to contend that “The trend over the last few years has been for both the Liberal and Labor parties in NSW to skew more right wing—the Liberals more outspoken in their social conservatism, Labor more ruthless in their economic rationalism; and for both parties to skew more left wing in VIC—VIC being the last refuge of the old school Liberal moderates, and Labor being clearly leftist, especially in culture war issues.”

Nicholas’s explanations for this difference are also worth quoting. Here is a sample; interested readers are advised to visit Quora to see his full account:

But if VIC is more progressive than NSW, it’s not because Melbourne has an industrial past and pioneered unionism—that wouldn’t explain why NSW was so strongly in the hands of Labor for the first two thirds of the 20th century. It’s not because Melbourne is more multicultural than Sydney—that claim doesn’t make any sense to me. And it’s not a categorical difference, it’s really one of degree: there are plenty of reactionaries in VIC, and plenty of progressives in NSW. NSW has a progressive inner city too—though they vote independents or moderate Liberals in, not Greens.

Sydney does have a much more aggressive conservative pundit culture, particularly on radio: compared to Alan Jones, Australia’s answer to Rush Limbaugh, the best Melbourne talkback radio can offer is the grumbly teddy bear Steve Price. But that’s symptom not cause, and besides, Melbourne is also home to Andrew Bolt, who I guess is our Tucker Carlson.

Other respondents have also pointed out that the topography of Sydney makes it more prone to communities getting balkanised, rather than seeing themselves as a single city as in the better connected Melbourne. (That helped inoculate Sydney against the spread of COVID in 2020—and it helped infect Sydney with the virus of race riots in 2005.) That makes Sydney a more troubled, combative place, but I don’t see that that makes Melbourne a more progressive place; a more optimistic place, perhaps, but for the fact that our weather is so gloomy.

The stereotype that Melbourne was more arty, more bohemian, and Sydney was more blokey, more outdoorsy, is of long standing; that Melbourne was the home of sophisticated comedy and Sydney only made lame sitcoms; that culture was at home in Melbourne and Sydney favoured sport instead—all these were certainly entrenched in the 80s.

I suspect what’s going on is that there’s more thought leadership of progressive politics in inner city Melbourne than inner city Sydney, and that’s leading to a perception of Melbourne being more progressive, which is self-fulfilling in social progress issues—even though Melbourne did vote for a Thatcherite like Kennett, and is host to plenty of reactionaries, as recent rallies outside State Parliament are demonstrating.

The Metropolitan Concentration of Support for Australia’s Indigenous Voice Referendum and the Melbourne/Sydney Divide Read More »

Mapping Australia’s 2023 Indigenous Voice Referendum, Part I

On October 14, 2023, Australian voters decisively rejected a proposed constitutional amendment that would have recognized the country’s indigenous population by creating a federal advisory body to represent the views of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. The 60 percent “no” vote shocked many Australian, as early in the year polling indicated that almost two-thirds of Australians supported the measure. The referendum’s defeat has resulted in a good deal of soul-searching, as well as accusations of misleading campaigning and outright prevarication by those opposed to the measure.

Although these are important issues, the next few GeoCurrents posts will consider instead the lessons that might be learned about Australian electoral geography from this hotly contested referendum. We will also consider what the vote pattern can tell us about the changing nature of Australia’s main political parties and the voting-blocks that support them. As we shall see, although the governing Labour Party strongly supported the measure, many heavily Labour-voting electoral divisions rejected it by considerable margin. At the same time, several important electoral divisions that have historically been strong supporters of the center-right Liberal Party, which opposed the measure, voted in its favor.

Today’s initial post, however, takes on a much simpler and more familiar issue: the tendency for electoral maps to exaggerate support for conservative parties and positions by giving undue visual weight to low-density, rural areas. Consider, for example, Wikipedia’s map of the election results (below). The is a poor example of the cartographer’s craft, as it lacks a key or any other form of explanation. But one can easily infer that darker shades of red indicate a strong “no” vote, whereas the small green area – Canberra, or the Australian Capital Territory – voted “yes.” The overall impression conveyed by this map is that the election was a landslide, with almost all constituencies voting against the measure.

A vastly better map was posted on Reddit’s MapPorn forum – as is so often the case. Unfortunately, however, this map misrepresents the vote in the Northern Territory, where 60.3 percent of voters opposed the measure. But by expanding the few relatively densely populated parts of the country, the map accurately shows widespread support for the referendum in metropolitan areas, where the most Australians live. Melbourne in particular is revealed as a stronghold for the “yes” vote. But the demographic imbalances in Australia are so extreme that this map still does not do justice to the actual vote. As the next set of maps illustrates, Australia’s two largest metropolitan areas, Sydney and Melbourne, together have more than twice the population of the entire western two-thirds of the country. In this vast region, only two electoral divisions, both in Perth, voted “yes,” whereas 17 did so in greater Melbourne and Sydney.

To adequately capture the demographic geography of this election, a cartogram* must be used instead. I was only able to find one example, a mosaic cartogram from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) in which of the country’s 151 federal electoral divisions are depicted as hexagons of equal size (although these divisions vary slightly in population, they all have roughly the same number of voters). The cartogram on the right (below) gives a particularly good visual representation of the demographic patterns found in this election.

The problem with cartograms, however, is that of spatial representation. All cartograms distort size and shape, but the issue is often pronounced in places with extremely uneven distributions of population, such as Australia. In the ABC mosaic cartogram posted above, the “geobody” of the country becomes unrecognizable. As the next map shows, it also misrepresents spatial positions. The electoral division of Griffith, for example, appears to be located in central Queensland, but it is actually situated in the state’s far southeastern corner.

All such problems, however, are intrinsic to electoral mapping. My preferred response is to use a variety of maps, made at different scales, and compare them. The next few GeoCurrents posts will do exactly that for Australia’s Indigenous Voice referendum. For now, however, I would like to note that the ABC article that posted the cartograms discussed above also includes several excellent graphs of the election results. Two of these are posted below. Together, they show that the “no” vote was especially pronounced in remote areas with relatively low rates of educational attainment. These correlations, and more, will be explored in greater detail in a set of maps focused on the Sydney metropolitan area that will be posted on this website next soon.

     

*As defined by Wikipedia: A cartogram (also called a value-area map or an anamorphic map, the latter common among German-speakers) is a thematic map of a set of features (countries, provinces, etc.), in which their geographic size is altered to be directly proportional to a selected ratio-level variable, such as travel time, population or GNP. Geographic space itself is thus warped, sometimes extremely, in order to visualize the distribution of the variable. It is one of the most abstract types of map; in fact, some forms may more properly be called diagrams. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cartogram

Mapping Australia’s 2023 Indigenous Voice Referendum, Part I Read More »

Neighborhood Stereotypes and Recent Voting Patterns in Auckland, New Zealand

Today’s post employs an unusual strategy for analyzing electoral geography, that of comparing local election results with neighborhood stereotypes. Here we look at the Auckland vote in New Zealand’s 2023 election, doing so in light of popular perceptions of different parts of the city as revealed by a detailed “judgmental map of Auckland” (published in 2017 in Newshub; see the previous post). To make the comparisons easier, I have overlaid maps of the 2023 election on sections of the stereotype map. My analysis of these combined maps is merely suggestive and is not informed by any firsthand knowledge of the city. It should thus be taken with a grain of salt.

We begin in the heart of the city, Auckland Central. The stereotypes of this Green-voting and strongly left-leaning electorate reflect its division into relatively rich and poor areas, an unexceptional feature for a central-city location: “expensive dining,” “hipsters,” “cruise ships,” “shows,” “porn,” “student ghetto,” “intensification,” and “done up.” The only term that I find confusing is “done up.” From a quick investigation of the term’s use in New Zealand, I infer that in this context it means “refurbished” or perhaps even “gentrified.” If this interpretation is correct, it is not a surprising designation for a Green-supporting area. As the map of the Green party-list vote in Auckland shows, support for the party is strongest near the urban core and declines in the peripheries (ignore the essentially unpopulated western expanse of New Lynn on the map).

The two Auckland electorates that selected candidates in the libertarian-leaning ACT Party, yellow-shaded Epsom and Tamaki, are affluent, inner-suburban communities. On the stereotypes map, Epson is prominently labeled “Double Grammar Zone,” a term that I originally thought might refer to a pretentious manner of speaking found among its well-off residents. Actually, the term is much more prosaic:

Three magical words significantly inflate the value and appeal of an exclusive group of Auckland residences. “Double Grammar Zone” is a most alluring catch-cry to many in this already searing hot market. Yes, these words offer the chance of access to the prestigious and successful Auckland Grammar School and Epsom Girls Grammar School. Experts have long pointed to the difference in price for properties located within the DGZ and noticed that gap widening as the city’s average house price continues to hit monthly record highs.

It is not surprising that residents of such an affluent neighborhood would support an anti-populist, economically conservative party. As the party-list vote map (below) shows, support for the ACT Party is highest in the city’s wealthy eastern fringe. In Epsom, the neighborhood labeled “professors” seems out-of-place; I can only assume that the voting patterns of this area are more like those of neighboring Auckland Central. At first glance, I found the “wankers” label mystifying, as I only understood this word as British term of general abuse that that originally denoted “masturbators.” The Urban Dictionary, however, claims that in New Zealand, Australia, and the UK, “wanker” primarily means “someone excessively and annoyingly pretentious and/or false, with a strong likelihood of working in the creative industries, especially ‘new media.’” I would not expect such “creative types,” however, to vote libertarian; perhaps this “wankerish” part of Epsom also has a different voting profile than the rest of the electorate. The label “Jon Ken” is even more mystifying; all that I could find when searching for that name was a nurse at an Auckland hospital.

The other ACT-supporting electorate in 2023, neighboring Tamaki, is labeled with several terms signifying establishment-oriented affluence: “yuppies,” “old-school suburbia,” “quite nice,” and “almost as nice.” The large-font label “Hannover Finance” refers to “a New Zealand non-bank finance company that focused on lending for high-risk property development that failed in 2010…” Its inclusion and prominence on the map perhaps reflect the common concern in Auckland about surging property prices. One label seems out-of-place for affluent Tamaki: “The Projects.” This term calls to my mind urban redevelopment initiatives in downtrodden neighborhoods. But the economic gradient between wealthy Tamaki and poor, Labour-voting Panumure-Otahutu (labeled “P-O” on the electorate map) to its south is steep, leading me to wonder whether the label has been placed a little too far to the north. But then again, the mapmakers have vastly greater knowledge of Auckland than I do.

The only electorate in the core region of Auckland that supported Labour in 2023 is Mount Albert. Its tags on the stereotype map suggest a relatively poor and ethnically diverse area that is changing as younger and more affluent people move in (“more hipsters,” “coffee,” “next to be gentrified,” and “halal.”) Such a district would be expected to heavily support both Labour and the Green Party, and that is exactly what one finds (see the map for the Green Party-list vote). I am confused, however, by the “Butcher’s” label in northern Mount Albert; perhaps it refers to upscale Omak Meats.

Two electorates in the southern part of the Auckland isthmus, Mount Rosekill and Maungskiekie, voted strongly for Labour in 2020 but switched to the National Party in 2023. Some of the labels placed here suggest a stable working- and lower-middle-class social environment: “alright suburbs,” “shabby suburbs,” and “panel beaters” (car-repair shops). “Mecca” and “noodles dumplings” probably indicate concentrations of immigrants from the Middle East and East Asia, respectively. (“McGehan Close,” to the contrary, denotes a street noted for its “hopelessness,” but it is located in Mount Albert, not Mount Rosekill, indicating either an error by the cartographer or one by me when I combined these maps.)

Labour’s main Auckland stronghold is in the southern part of the city (see the maps below). This is a decidedly poor and ethnically diverse area. The stereotype labels here are telling: “cleaners at your office,” “hardcase,” “Apia” (the capital of Samoa), and, in large font, “extra police resources.” The stark “extra police resources” tag, however, also extends into a much better-off electorate (Takanini), which switched from Labour to the National Party in 2023. To the north of Takanini are two relatively well-to-do electorates that have long supported the National Party and shunned Labour. One of them, Pakuranga, also has relatively high levels of support for ACT. Some of the stereotypes for this electorate, such as “bratty teens” and “wealthier bratty teens” are interesting, but I am especially intrigued by “paranoid South Africans.”

West Auckland (see the map below) includes another electorate that supported Labour in 2023, Kelston, although it did so by a relatively thin margin. Some of its stereotypes – such as “P-Labs” (meth labs) and “Tongans” – indicate the presence of rough neighborhoods and of a large Polynesian immigrant community. To its north is Te-Atatu; noted for its low- and medium-cost housing. The prominent label “Cheryl West” found here refers to a character in a popular television show who supposedly typified the “Westie” personality, defined by Wikipedia as someone “from the outer suburbs who [is] unintelligent, undereducated, unmotivated, unrefined, lacking in fashion sense, working-class or unemployed.” The same article, however, also notes that “Westie” has been gradually shifting from a “pejorative to a societal identifier,” based mostly on its prominence in television shows, song lyrics, and comedy routines. The movement of such a working-class redoubt as Te-Atatu from the Labour Party to the National Party in 2023 is therefore of some significance.

 

Another western electorate that switched from Labour to National in 2023 is New Lynn. Based on the stereotypes applied to it, such results are surprising. Such tags as “faint whiff of pot,” “hippies,” “potters,” and “artisany type people,” would suggest a decidedly left-leaning population. And that is its historical norm. As the non-updated Wikipedia article on the electorate notes, “It has always been held by members of the Labour Party.” But in 2023, the National Party triumphed in New Lynn both in the party-list vote and the electorate vote, albeit by relatively thin margins. The Green Party vote, however, was fairly large in New Lynn, as would be expected from the labels applied to it. Intriguingly, its new MP, Paulo Reyes Garcia, is an immigration lawyer originally from the Philippines.

The five northern electorates of Auckland (see the map below) all favored the National Party in 2023 in both the part-list vote and the electorate-based vote. In contrast, in 2020 all of them favored the Labour in the party-list vote, as did two in the electorate-based vote. The eastern part of this area is notably affluent, as is reflected by its stereotypes, and therefore would be expected to support the National Party. Two of these tags, “decile 10” and “more like decile 8-9,” need an explanation for non-New Zealanders; “decile” refers to a school-ranking system based on the socio-economic characteristics of their students, with “decile 10” denoting those in the top 10 percent. The term “Lorde” might also be mystifying for some people in other countries; it is the stage name of the well-known Kiwi musician Ella Marija Lani Yelich-O’Connor, who was raised in the Northshore electorate in the area under her name label.

The southwestern part of northern Auckland, the Northcote and Upper Harbour electorates, is a mid-income area noted for its Asian immigrants. Such features are indicated by three prominent labels on the stereotype map: “very average,” “Koreans,” and “Chinatown” (although Northcote also includes an area that is evidently populated by “artists too cool for cityside”). Upper Harbour, with its “depressing suburbs,” “car yards,” and “Koreans” saw a particularly sharp drop in support for Labour from 2020 to 2023.

This cursory analysis suggests that New Zealand’s National Party currently now enjoys a fairly broad level of support, extending well beyond its upper-middle-class base. It will be interesting to see whether it will be able to retain working-class and immigrant support in the coming years.

As a final note, in doing research for this post I was also surprised to learn that people from Auckland are often disparaged by other New Zealanders. As the Wikipedia article on the term “Jafa” notes:

Jafa is a slang term (sometimes pejorative  for a resident of Auckland, New Zealand. It is an acronym, standing for Just Another Fucking Aucklander. [I]t is considered to be representative of the boorishness of Aucklanders, or the envy of the rest of New Zealand, depending on the perspective. The term has wider currency than the earlier derogatory term “Rangitoto Yank.” A variant is Jaffa, Just Another Fuckwit From Auckland.  … Auckland is alleged to be full of rude, greedy and arrogant people, having a similar reputation as Mumbai and Kolkata in India, Milan and Rome in Italy, Paris in France, London in the United Kingdom, New York City in the United States, or Moscow and Saint Petersburg in Russia.  …Auckland is alleged to be a culturally alien place due to the much higher proportion of non-Maori and nonwhite populations than the rest of the country. Percentage-wise, Auckland has the seventh largest ethnic Chinese population among all urban areas outside Greater China. In the 2006 census, Asians comprised 18.9% of Auckland’s population but only 7.9% in Christchurch, and 14.4% of Auckland’s but merely 2.8% of Christchurch’s population are Pacific Islanders. Most new immigrants to Auckland are from East Asia and South Asia, while people immigrating to other parts of the country show higher percentage rates of UK and South African origins. Auckland is finding itself increasingly marginalised on sports traditionally identified with New Zealand culture, such as rugby and netball, because of high immigrant numbers from countries with little tradition of such sports.

Neighborhood Stereotypes and Recent Voting Patterns in Auckland, New Zealand Read More »

Auckland’s Electoral to the Right – and Comparisons with U.S. Cities

As noted in the previous post, the Auckland metropolitan area, like New Zealand as a whole, experienced a significant electoral shift to the right in the 2023 election. This swing is glaringly evident in the party-list vote (see the previous post for an explanation of this term). In 2020, the Labour list triumphed in 19 of Auckland’s 20 electorates; in 2023, its count was reduced to five, with the center-right Nationalist Party winning the other 15. Even in its strongholds, Labour’s vote percentage dropped substantially. The separate vote for electorate-based MPs in 2023, however, exhibited much more diversity, as is generally the case. Although Labour still took only five Auckland seats in that contest, the Green Party took another, that of Auckland Central. As the libertarian-leaning ACT Party won two Auckland seats in the electorate-based vote, the National Party’s overall take was 12, but that was twice as many as it took in 2020.

By far the largest city in New Zealand, Auckland is noted as well for its ethnic diversity. It reportedly has the “the fourth largest foreign-born population in the world, with 39% of its residents born overseas” (see the table below).  By the current standards of the United States, it is remarkable for such a large and ethnically diverse city to support a conservative political party. In the U.S., candidates from the left-leaning Democratic Party almost always come out ahead in both urban cores and inner suburbs, with support for conservative candidates mounting only as one moves into the outer-suburban and exurban belts. Although strongest in northeastern and Pacific-coast cities, this pattern is evident to some degree across the country. It can be seen, for example, in Houston, Texas (see below), which is one of the country’s most ethnically diverse large cities.This electoral disparity between New Zealand and the United States is to some extent a reflection of the different characteristics of the two country’s major political parties. It is also linked to the different political environments created by a mixed-proportional parliamentary system of government (New Zealand), which encourages minor parties, as opposed to a “winner take all” system (the United States), which encourages a two-party duopoly.

In the United States, the Republican Party has veered in a populist-nationalist direction since 2016, which has reduced its support in affluent suburbs while increasing it among non-metropolitan and working-class voters. In New Zealand, the populist-nationalist political space has long been occupied by the marginally successful New Zealand First Party. Although situated on the right on social and cultural issues, New Zealand First leans far enough to the left on economic matters for it to have joined a minority coalition government with the Labour Party in 2017. New Zealand’s National Party, with a platform based on “free enterprise, reduction of taxes, and limited state regulation,” is more similar to the American Republican Party before the Trump revolution of 2016 than it is to the Republican Party today. In some respects, the National Party has a more centrist orientation than the Republicans Party has had since the Eisenhour era of the 1950s. Because of such moderation, New Zealand’s ACT Party has staked its ground further to the socio-economic right, highlighting its firm commitment to “classical-liberal and small (or limited) government principles coupled with what the party considers as a high regard for individual freedom and personal responsibility.” All things considered, the relatively centrist orientation of the National Party allowed it to take advantage of the current discontent with the policies of the out-going Labour government, and thus score a decisive victory.

As the various electorates of Auckland saw markedly different electoral results in 2023, it would be useful to see how well the returns correlate with demographic and socio-economic indicators. Let us begin with population density, which was a factor in the national vote (see the previous GeoCurrrents post). In Auckland, however, the role of population density is relatively modest – much less than what one would expect in the United States. As can be seen in the two paired maps posted below, the higher-density areas of the Auckland region generally showed a higher level of support for the Labour and Green parties than did lower-density areas, but the linkage is relatively small. A few relatively high-density areas, moreover, strongly supported the National Party.

Much closer correlations are found for economic class, which is evident in the paired maps posted below. The household income level map on the left is admirably detailed, but it has neither a key nor a textual explanation in its accompanying article; one can, however, deduce that the blue dots indicate high-income levels and the red dots low-income levels. By comparing the two maps, we can see that affluent areas tended to supported candidates in the National Party, whereas the richest ones were more supportive of the libertarian-leaning ACT Party. In contrast, the poorest areas, located in southeastern Auckland, overwhelmingly supported the Labour Party. Such a pattern is reminiscent of that found in the United States decades ago. In an American city like San Francisco, however, the correlation between economic class and voting behavior in national elections has almost entirely collapsed (see the maps below).

In Auckland, some local deviation is found in such class-based voting behavior. The most left-leaning electorate, “green” Auckland Central, includes some notably wealthy areas, although it also has some relatively poor ones. This is not surprising, however, as people who vote for green parties across the world tend to be highly educated and relatively affluent. More surprising is the switch from the Labour Party to the National Party in several relatively poor parts of western Auckland, as well as in some of the more economically mixed areas of north Auckland.

Such patterns deserve further scrutiny, which is difficult to accomplish for someone with limited time, no assistance, no personal knowledge of the city. Fortunately, however, Newshub has published a fascinating and detailed map of neighborhood stereotypes in Auckland that might prove useful in this regard. The next GeoCurrents post will therefore see whether such a “judgmental” view of the city can shed any light on its recent electoral shift.

Auckland’s Electoral to the Right – and Comparisons with U.S. Cities Read More »

New Zealand’s Striking Electoral Shift to the Right

The conservative National Party of New Zealand scored a major victory in the country’s October 2023 general election, with the governing Labour Party suffering a historic defeat. As described by The Guardian, “New Zealand voters have delivered a forceful rejection of the Labour government as a surge in support for the National party delivered what analysts described as a ‘bloodbath, for the government and a new right-leaning era for politics in the country.” But just three years earlier, it was Labour in the victory circle, winning the 2020 election so overwhelmingly that it was able to govern without a coalition partner. But in the intervening period, the country’s mood soured over concerns about high taxes, increasing crime, the rising cost of living (especially of housing), and the government’s highly restrictive COVID policies.

Before delving into geographical analysis of New Zealand’s recent elections, it is necessary to explain the complexities of the county’s “mixed-member proportional” parliamentary system. New Zealand is divided into 65 general “electorates” (geographical voting constituencies) and then redivided into seven special electorates for Māori voters. Each electorate selects one person to serve as its MP (Member of Parliament) in the unicameral parliament, officially known as the New Zealand House of Representatives. But Kiwi voters not only choose an individual to represent their electorate, but also vote a second time for a political party, each of which maintains a list of potential MPs. Parties whose total vote in that contest exceeds a certain threshold (usually five percent) send an additional 48* MPs into the House of Representatives, their numbers proportional to their share of the vote. Minor parties can thus gain parliamentary representation either by having enough voters concentrated in one or more electorate to defeat candidates from the other parties, or by having enough support nationwide to crack the five-percent threshold.

Labour’s overwhelming triumph in the 2020 election is strikingly evident on the map of the “party list vote,” which is on the left side of the paired Wikipedia maps posted below. Astoundingly, the Labour-list came in first place in all but one general electorate. Its rival center-right National Party took only a single district, located in a suburban area of Auckland. The direct electorate results were much more balanced, with individual candidates in the National Party taking seats in both non-metropolitan areas and in the more affluent parts of Auckland (see the map on the right). Three other parties – the Green Party, the Maori Party, and the “classical liberal” ACT Party – also sent MPs to parliament in 2020, based both on their national party-list vote and on their victories in individual electorates. All in all, 2020 was a banner year for New Zealand’s political left, with Labour, the Green Party, and the Maori party (Te Pāti Māori) together holding 78 parliamentary seats, as opposed to 42 held by the center-right National and ACT parties.

On October 14, 2023, however, New Zealand experienced a stunning electoral reversal. As the party-list vote maps for the two elections show, New Zealand went from almost entirely red (Labour) to almost entirely blue (National Party). Even on the more diverse Wikipedia map of the direct electorate results, there is little red to be seen in the country as a whole. But such mapping is misleading; as the inset maps show, the Labour and Green parties won quite a few urban seats, particularly in the country’s second and third largest cities, Christchurch and Wellington. But overall, the 2023 election was a clear triumph for conservatives. It was also a rout for Labour, which went from 62 to 34 seats in the House of Representatives. But the other left-leaning parties, the Greens and the Māori Party, gained seats. So too did the classically liberal ACT Party. The socially conservative nationalist-populist New Zealand First Party also did relatively well, returning to the House of Representatives after an absence of several years.

As conventional electoral maps give undue prominence to sparsely inhabited areas, and therefore tend to visually exaggerate the vote-share of conservative parties, electoral cartographers have devised more representative maps. The usual strategy is to expand more densely populated areas in proportion to their populations. For New Zealand’s 2023 election, The Spinoff devised such a map, converting the country into hexagons of roughly equal population. It also grouped the parties into two categories, one left-leaning and the other right-leaning. As can be seen in the resulting map, in the 2023 election New Zealand was still a mostly blue (conservative-voting) country, although not to the extent seen in conventional maps. This Spinoff map also clearly shows the Māori population, with its special electorates, as strongly supporting the political left.

The Spinoff has drafted another map that divides New Zealand’s electoral hexagons into three categories, one composed of large cities (Auckland, Wellington, and Christchurch), one of medium-sized cities, and one of rural areas. Such mapping helps us see the role of population density in voting behavior. To clarify this situation, I have “whited-out” non-rural areas on one iteration of this map, everything but large cities on another, and everything but medium-sized cities on a third. As can be seen, rural electorates supported the conservative National Party, although some by relatively thin margins. Medium-sized cities delivered more mixed results, with some strongly favoring the National Party and others supporting Labour. Dunedin, in southeastern South Island, in particular leans left. Such affiliation is strongest in North Dunedin; as “Just Dave” comments in a Quora query about New Zealand’s most left-wing cities:

The cities in which the most left-wing party that actually gets elected to Parliament (the Greens) receives the largest proportion of the popular vote in the are central Wellington, central Auckland and north Dunedin. All three areas have a comparatively young, wealthy and educated population. North Dunedin is primarily home to university students and university staff, for example.

Surprisingly, New Zealand’s large cities also appear as politically mixed on The Spinoff’s 2023 electoral map. To be sure, Wellington – the capital – is mostly red (Labour) and green (Green), but it is a different story in Christchurch and especially Auckland. Auckland, by far the largest metropolitan area in the country, deserves a more detailed analysis – which it will receive in the next GeoCurrents post.

*This number can be slightly higher due to extenuating circumstances.

New Zealand’s Striking Electoral Shift to the Right Read More »

Answers to Last Week’s Geo-Quiz

Pacific Test MapThe correct answers are in bold.

1. The area marked A:

a. is a major agricultural region, marked by large sugar and cotton plantations in the north and intensive sheep and cattle ranching in the south.

b. is an Australian territory rather than state (owing largely to its small population) that has a relatively high proportion of Indigenous Australians (Aborigines) in its population.

c. is an Australian state characterized, like the rest of the country, by low population density overall, but with high density in its capital city – which contains over one million people.

d. is a large Aboriginal reserve; Australians of European or Asian descent are encouraged to visit, but they are not allowed to live there.

2. The area marked B:

a. is the core area of Australia, containing most of its major metropolitan areas, much of its agriculture, as well as most of its population.

b. is a very sparsely populated area that contains huge and highly valuable mineral deposits.

c.  is culturally distinctive from the rest of Australia owing to its location; whereas the rest of the country plays Australian rules football, it favors rugby.

d. is economically declining due to drought and the exhaustion of its mineral resources; as result, people are leaving the area for other parts of Australia.

3. The country, with two main islands, marked C:

a. is the most economically successful country in the region, thanks to its mineral wealth and high tech industries.

b. is almost entirely English in its cultural and genetic background, with fewer than 3%  of its population derived from other parts of the world.

c. has a majority population of British and Irish background, but also has a substantial and growing indigenous (Maori) population, as well as significant populations derived from Asia and from other Pacific islands.

d. is a largely rural society (unlike Australia), with few major cities, and a large (45%) indigenous minority.

4. The area marked D is:

a. an independent country, in Free Association with the United States, that contains large U.S. military bases.

b. a dependent territory of the United States; a strong independence movement here has threatened U.S. interests, leading to the withdrawal of military forces.

c. an independent country that maintains a highly traditional way of life; immigration is not allowed, and even tourism is discouraged.

d. a “commonwealth” of the Unites States (like Puerto Rico): the people of the islands are US citizens and can freely migrate to the mainland, but they do not have US voting rights.

5. The area marked E is:

a. a self-governing, “sui generis” dependency of France that is scheduled to vote on independence within a  few years; its population is mostly divided between the indigenous “Kanaks” and the “Caldoche” European settlers.

b. an independent country that that has experienced pronounced political turmoil due to the tensions between its main island and its smaller islands.

c. an overseas department of France, and hence as much a part of France as Hawaii is part of the United States.

d. an independent country that that has experienced pronounced political turmoil due to the tensions between its indigenous population and its population of Indian ancestry.

6. The area marked with three Fs:

a. is one of the more populous and prosperous countries of the Pacific, owing to its combination of large, fertile, volcanic “high” islands and numerous atolls.

b. is an American dependency – and is the site of numerous U.S. military bases.

c. is an independent country with a small (roughly 100,000) population concentrated in its western atolls  — presenting it with a major problem in patrolling its huge “exclusive economic zone” of oceanic territory.

d. maintains strict control over its ocean territory through the use of its powerful navy –- much to the distress of its neighboring countries.

7. The country marked G:

a. is an independent country that has experienced intense struggles between its main island and its outer archipelago, leading to Australian military occupation in 2004.

b. is more prosperous than most of its neighboring Oceanic countries owing to tourism and to its successful development of an off-shore banking industry.

c. is noted for its extreme linguistic diversity; its unifying language, Tok Pisin (“Pidgin English”) is mostly based on English.

d. was a former French colony that maintains close ties to France, especially in terms of its economy (it is a major exporter of nickel).

8. The large triangular area marked H at each apex:

a. is differentiated from the rest of the Pacific-island world by the fact that most of its people are of European or Asian descent, with indigenous populations everywhere forming a relatively small minority.

b. is called “Polynesia,” but this term has little meaning, as the so-called Polynesian peoples actually speak a number of very different languages and follow very different cultural traditions.

c. was uninhabited before the coming of Europeans, hence it has no truly
indigenous peoples.

d. is called Polynesia; before the coming of the Europeans, similar languages and customs were found throughout this huge region.

9. The area marked I:

a. is an independent country that was formerly under joint British and French rule; it is also noted for its “cargo cult” religions.

b. is a “sui generis” dependency of France, noted for its mineral riches and ethnic conflict.

c. is the last remaining monarchy of the Pacific, noted for its highly traditional Polynesian culture.

d. has experienced much ethnic tension between its indigenous population and its population of South Asian (Indian) background.

 

Non-Map Questions

10. The initial human settlement of Polynesia:

a. dates back some 50,000 years; early human migrants were able to able to take advantage of lower sea-levels to “island hop” as far as Fiji, Samoa, and Tahiti, and New Zealand.

b. dates back some 10,000 years in the core area (French Polynesia), but migrants did not reach New Zealand, Fiji, and Hawaii until about 5,000 years ago.

c. began several thousand years ago by Austronesian-speakers (originally from Taiwan or south China) who first moved though the coastal areas of Melanesia and then spread through all of Polynesia, reaching New Zealand roughly 1,000 years ago.

d. is thought to have involved several streams of migrants, one coming from Southeast Asia, one from Australia, and one from South America.

11. Current Australian immigration policy:

a. is highly restrictive; although many educational and tourist visas are granted, only a few hundred people a year are allowed permanent residency.

b. allows large numbers of skilled immigrants to settle permanently, but is highly restrictive when it comes to unskilled workers and to people trying to enter the country without a visa.

c. is based heavily on area of origin, with English-speaking people from Britain, New Zealand, the United States, and Canada given favored treatment.

d. is based on the notion that Australia is under-populated; unskilled people are allowed to immigrate in large numbers provided that they agree to live in lightly populated portions of the country.

12. From the late 1700s to the mid 1800s, European mariners often regarded the islands of Polynesia as:

a. a tropical paradise where the living was easy and men could easily obtain sexual relations with indigenous women.

b. with very mixed feelings: Polynesia is characterized by pronounced cultural diversity, which was well understood by Europeans – as a result, some islands were viewed positively (Tahiti) and others negatively (Solomon Islands).

c. as relatively dangerous and uninviting, in part because cannibalism was reputed to be widespread.

d. as relatively dangerous and uninviting, largely because strong Polynesian kingdoms and chiefdoms were able to keep European ships out of their harbors until the late 1800s.

13. (one point question). What is the name of the island marked K? ­­­­­­­­­__Tasmania________________

 

Answers to Last Week’s Geo-Quiz Read More »

How Does Your Knowledge of the Pacific Compare to That of a Stanford Geography Student?

Dear Readers: Blogging has been light recently due to the demands of reading student essay, writing exams, and grading exams as the autumn academic term comes to an end. In my two-term class on Global Human Geography at Stanford University, I give both multiple-choice and essay exams, the first being easy to grade but difficult to write, and the second being easy to write but difficult to grade.
Pacific Test MapIn lieu of a regular post today, I am putting up a portion of my recent multiple-choice geography exam, focusing on Australia and the Pacific. Most of these questions are based on a map of the region, which is posted here.

I will put up the answers to these questions in a separate post within a day or two.

MAP 3.

1. The area marked A:

a. is a major agricultural region, marked by large sugar and cotton plantations in the north and intensive sheep and cattle ranching in the south.

b. is an Australian territory rather than state (owing largely to its small population) that has a relatively high proportion of Indigenous Australians (Aborigines) in its population.

c. is an Australian state characterized, like the rest of the country, by low population density overall, but with high density in its capital city – which contains over one million people.

d. is a large Aboriginal reserve; Australians of European or Asian descent are encouraged to visit, but they are not allowed to live there.

2. The area marked B:

a. is the core area of Australia, containing most of its major metropolitan areas, much of its agriculture, as well as most of its population.

b. is a very sparsely populated area that contains huge and highly valuable mineral deposits.

c.  is culturally distinctive from the rest of Australia owing to its location; whereas the rest of the country plays Australian rules football, it favors rugby.

d. is economically declining due to drought and the exhaustion of its mineral resources; as result, people are leaving the area for other parts of Australia.

3. The country, with two main islands, marked C:

a. is the most economically successful country in the region, thanks to its mineral wealth and high tech industries.

b. is almost entirely English in its cultural and genetic background, with fewer than 3%  of its population derived from other parts of the world.

c. has a majority population of British and Irish background, but also has a substantial and growing indigenous (Maori) population, as well as significant populations derived from Asia and from other Pacific islands.

d. is a largely rural society (unlike Australia), with few major cities, and a large (45%) indigenous minority.

4. The area marked D is:

a. an independent country, in Free Association with the United States, that contains large U.S. military bases.

b. a dependent territory of the United States; a strong independence movement here has threatened U.S. interests, leading to the withdrawal of military forces.

c. an independent country that maintains a highly traditional way of life; immigration is not allowed, and even tourism is discouraged.

d. a “Commonwealth” of the Unites States (like Puerto Rico): the people of the islands are US citizens and can freely migrate to the mainland, but they do not have US voting rights.

5. The area marked E is:

a. a self-governing, “sui generis” dependency of France that is scheduled to vote on independence within a  few years; its population is mostly divided between the indigenous “Kanaks” and the “Caldoche” European settlers.

b. an independent country that that has experienced pronounced political turmoil due to the tensions between its main island and its smaller islands.

c. an overseas department of France, and hence as much a part of France as Hawaii is part of the United States.

d. an independent country that that has experienced pronounced political turmoil due to the tensions between its indigenous population and its population of Indian ancestry.

6. The area marked with three Fs:

a. is one of the more populous and prosperous countries of the Pacific, owing to its combination of large, fertile, volcanic “high” islands and numerous atolls.

b. is an American dependency – and is the site of numerous U.S. military bases.

c. is an independent country with a small (roughly 100,000) population concentrated in its western atolls  — presenting it with a major problem in patrolling its huge “exclusive economic zone” of oceanic territory.

d. maintains strict control over its ocean territory through the use of its powerful navy –- much to the distress of its neighboring countries.

7. The country marked G:

a. is an independent country that has experienced intense struggles between its main island and its outer archipelago, leading to Australian military occupation in 2004.

b. is more prosperous than most of its neighboring Oceanic countries owing to tourism and to its successful development of an off-shore banking industry.

c. is noted for its extreme linguistic diversity; its unifying language, Tok Pisin (“Pidgin English”) is mostly based on English.

d. was a former French colony that maintains close ties to France, especially in terms of its economy (it is a major exporter of nickel).

8. The large triangular area marked H at each apex:

a. is differentiated from the rest of the Pacific-island world by the fact that most of its people are of European or Asian descent, with indigenous populations everywhere forming a relatively small minority.

b. is called “Polynesia,” but this term has little meaning, as the so-called Polynesian peoples actually speak a number of very different languages and follow very different cultural traditions.

c. was uninhabited before the coming of Europeans, hence it has no truly
indigenous peoples.

d. is called Polynesia; before the coming of the Europeans, similar languages and customs were found throughout this huge region.

9. The area marked I:

a. is an independent country that was formerly under joint British and French rule; it is also noted for its “cargo cult” religions.

b. is a “sui generis” dependency of France, noted for its mineral riches and ethnic conflict.

c. is the last remaining monarchy of the Pacific, noted for its highly traditional Polynesian culture.

d. has experienced much ethnic tension between its indigenous population and its population of South Asian (Indian) background.

 

Non-Map Questions

10. The initial human settlement of Polynesia:

a. dates back some 50,000 years; early human migrants were able to able to take advantage of lower sea-levels to “island hop” as far as Fiji, Samoa, and Tahiti, and New Zealand.

b. dates back some 10,000 years in the core area (French Polynesia), but migrants did not reach New Zealand, Fiji, and Hawaii until about 5,000 years ago.

c. began several thousand years ago by Austronesian-speakers (originally from Taiwan or south China0 who first moved though the coastal areas of Melanesia and then spread through all of Polynesia, reaching New Zealand roughly 1,000 years ago.

d. is thought to have involved several streams of migrants, one coming from Southeast Asia, one from Australia, and one from South America.

11. Current Australian immigration policy:

a. is highly restrictive; although many educational and tourist visas are granted, only a few hundred people a year are allowed permanent residency.

b. allows large numbers of skilled immigrants to settle permanently, but is highly restrictive when it comes to unskilled workers and to people trying to enter the country without a visa.

c. is based heavily on area of origin, with English-speaking people from Britain, New Zealand, the United States, and Canada given favored treatment.

d. is based on the notion that Australia is under-populated; unskilled people are allowed to immigrate in large numbers provided that they agree to live in lightly populated portions of the country.

12. From the late 1700s to the mid 1800s, European mariners often regarded the islands of Polynesia as:

a. a tropical paradise where the living was easy and men could easily obtain sexual relations with indigenous women.

b. with very mixed feelings: Polynesia is characterized by pronounced cultural diversity, which was well understood by Europeans – as a result, some islands were viewed positively (Tahiti) and others negatively (Solomon Islands).

c. as relatively dangerous and uninviting, in part because cannibalism was reputed to be widespread.

d. as relatively dangerous and uninviting, largely because strong Polynesian kingdoms and chiefdoms were able to keep European ships out of their harbors until the late 1800s.

13. (one point question). What is the name of the island marked K? ­­­­­­­­­__________________

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Recent Gilbertese Settlement of the Line Islands

Map of KiribatiIt is difficult to convey the immensity and emptiness of the Republic of Kiribati. The country extends across more than 3.5 million square kilometers (1,351,000 sq mi) of oceanic space, an area considerably larger than India. The distance between its western and eastern islands is comparable to the distance across the United States. Yet Kiribati contains only 800 square kilometers (310 sq mi) of land, an area slightly larger than the city-state of Singapore, and considerably smaller than the city of Los Angeles.

With some 103,000 inhabitants (in 2010), Kiribati has only a moderately dense population. Its 135 people per square kilometer of land (350 per sq mi) places it in the 73rd position among the world’s 244 sovereign states and dependent territories, well below Italy, Germany, and the United Kingdom. But such figures are misleading, as the population of Kiribati is by no means evenly distributed over its far-flung expanse. Most of its residents live on the 16 atolls of the Gilbert Archipelago in the west. Here more than 85,000 people are crowded into roughly 281 square kilometers of low-lying land. On the main atoll of Tarawa, a fast-growing population of some 55,000 is limited to 31 square kilometers. Tarawa’s highest point is three meters above sea level.

The Phoenix Islands in central Kiribati are a different matter. These islands contain 84.5 square kilometers of land but their population is negligible. Only Kanton Island is inhabited, and its population in 2010 was all of 24, having declined from 61 in 2000. Although archeological remains indicate that some of the Phoenix Islands had once been settled, they had no human inhabitants when they were first sighted by Europeans. In the late 1930s, major efforts were made to populate the Phoenix Islands, described by the Wikipedia as “the last attempt at human colonisation within the British Empire.” Imperial agents wanted to reduce over-population in the southern Gilbert Islands and to forestall potential U.S. attempts to gain territory under the Guano Islands Act. The colonization project was abandoned in 1963, however, with the settlers returning to the Gilbert Islands. Low prices for copra, the islands’ only significant export, along with recurrent drought, undermined the scheme.

Pacific Rainfall MapDrought is also a problem in many of the Line Islands, which form Kiribati’s eastern archipelago. The central and southern Line Islands fall within the low-rainfall region of the eastern Pacific, which is generated in large part by the cold waters of the Humboldt Current that are deflected into the equatorial region by the shape of the South American landmass. Partly as a result of meager and uncertain precipitation, the Line Islands—which themselves stretch over 2,350 kilometers of sea-space—were also uninhabited at the time of European discovery. They were all claimed by the United States under the Guano Islands Act, but the U.S. relinquished all of its claims in 1983, with the Congressional ratification of the Treaty of Tarawa (more formally known as the “Kiribati, Treaty of Friendship and Territorial Sovereignty, September 20, 1979,” with a subtitle reading “Treaty of Friendship Between the United States of America and the Republic of Kiribati”).

Line Islands Population growthToday, three of the Line Islands are inhabited: Teraina, or Washington Island, with 1,155 residents (2005), Tabuaeran, or Fanning Island, with 2,539 residents (2005), and Kiritimati, or Christmas Island, with 5,115 residents (2005). The populations of all three islands have increased rapidly in recent decades, owing in part to official Kiribati relocation schemes designed in part to reduce crowding in the Gilbert Islands. Teraina Island was first settled after WWII through the agency of the Burns Philip Copra Company, but its population expanded significantly only after 1990. As noted in an official publication of the Republic of Kiribati:

The population of Teeraina in the 2010 census was 1,690. Compared to the 2005 population of 1,155 and the 2000 population of 1,087, the population is growing very rapidly. The population of Teeraina grew by 535 people between 2005 and 2010, an annual population growth of 7.9%. In percentage terms, Teeraina is the fastest growing island in Kiribati, although the growth is much less significant in terms of absolute numbers.

Kiritimati Island MapGrowth on Kiritimati Island, the giant of not only the Line Islands but also of Kiribati as a whole, has been even more dramatic, its population jumping from 3,431 in 2000 to 5,115 in 2005. With some 388 square kilometers of dry land, Kiritimati Island has a larger terrestrial extent than any other coral atoll in the world.

The vast majority of the people now living in the Line Islands are originally from the Gilbert Archipelago and speak Gilbertese, also known as the Kiribati Language.* As noted in the Wikipedia, “Unlike many in the Pacific region, the Kiribati language is far from extinct, and most speakers use it daily. 97% of those living in Kiribati are able to read in Kiribati, and 80% are able to read English.” Gilbertese has also expanded into nearby countries, with some 5,000 people speaking the language in the Solomon Islands and perhaps another 1,000 doing so in Vanuatu.

Kiribati Fertility LevelThe expansion of the Gilbertese-speaking area has been driven largely by population growth. Although Kiribati’s fertility rate has declined in recent years, it is still well above the replacement rate. Given the small size of the Gilbert Islands, migration to other areas is not surprising. The government of Kiribati is also keen to establish permanent populations in its distant islands in order to cement its control over areas that had been tenuously held. Kiribati also views Kiritimati Island as a potential refuge in the event of a catastrophic sea-level rise. The European Union agrees, and has thus pledged substantial development funds. As noted in a February 2015 article in Radio Australia:

The European Union has just announced a 23 million Euro grant for Kiribati, money that will be used to develop the nation’s largest atoll, Kiritimati Island.

Although it makes up 70 per cent of the country’s landmass, Kiritimati Island was virtually uninhabited for decades and is relatively undeveloped.

By improving facilities on the island, the EU Ambassador to the Pacific Andrew Jacobs says the aim is to reduce the threat posed by climate change to the main population centre of Tarawa.

Kiribati is also concerned about its elevated fertility level. As noted in a World Culture Encyclopedia article on the country:

Population has been growing rapidly since the early 1900s, and overpopulation is a serious concern of the government. While family-planning methods were introduced in 1968 and are delivered free, fertility remains moderately high and large families are culturally valued. Despite government efforts to maintain and improve life on the outer islands, there has been substantial migration to the capital on South Tarawa. There are several thousand I-Kiribati in other countries, most serving as temporary workers.

* The word “Kiribati” itself means “Gilberts” in the Gilbertese language. It is unclear what the indigenous word for the archipelago is, although “Tungaru” has been suggested. Note that in Gilbertese orthography, a “ti” is pronounced as an “s” sound, giving the preferred pronunciation of the country as “keer-ə-bahss.” By the same token, the island of “Kiritimati” is rendered as “kuhris-muh s” or “kəˈrɪsmæs,” the local pronunciation of “Christmas.” It is unclear why the “s” sound in Gilbertese is written as “ti”; I dimly recall reading that the first missionaries brought a typewriter with a broken “s” key, and hence used “ti” as a substitute symbol, but I have been unable to find confirmation

 

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The Anomaly of Banaba Island: Part of Kiribati, But Administered from Fiji

 

Revised-Map-Of-Geopolitical-AnomaliesFor some time I have been making a list of “geopolitical anomalies,” loosely defined as existing arrangements that defy the standard model of sovereign states exercising completely control over unambiguous, clearly delimited territorial realms. Until recently, however, one of the world’s more interesting geopolitical anomalies had escaped my attention: that of Banaba Island (also called Ocean Island) in the Pacific island country of Kiribati. Banaba definitely belongs to the country of Kiribati, yet it is administered by a legal body based in another country, Fiji. The “body” in question is the Rabi Council of Leaders and Elders, which administers both Rabi Island (in Fiji) and Banaba Island in Kiribati, although it maintains its main office in Kiribati Banaba MapSuva, the capital Fiji, located on the island of Viti Levu. The people of Rabi Island are Fijian citizens, but they also hold passports from Kiribati. More importantly, they maintain ownership of Kiribati’s Banaba Island, which gives them they authority to administer it. One of the eight members of the Rabi Council of Leaders and Elders, moreover, sits in the parliament of Kiribati in order to represent the community.

Kiribati mapBanaba covers only 6 km2 (2.3 sq mi), but is still one of the larger islands of Kiribati, a country mostly composed of tiny coral atolls scattered across an enormous expanse of oceanic space. Only 335 people Banaba Island Maplived on the island as of 2012. Rabi Island is considerably larger in regard to both area and population, covering 67.3 km2 (26.0 sq mi) and counting some 5,000 inhabitants, 95 percent of whom are ethnic Banabans.

The unusual geopolitical situation of Banaba is rooted in the island’s extraordinarily rich phosphate deposits, a resource that was also extremely abundant on the near-by island of Nauru, a sovereign state in its own right. The phosphate deposits are now largely mined out, leaving both Nauru and Banaba in precarious situations. Although the people of Nauru mostly remained on their own mined-out island, those of Banaba were mostly relocated just after WWII to Rabi Island in Fiji. As historian Gregory T. Banaba MapCushman explains in his award-winning book, Guano and the Opening of the Pacific World, the Banaban people were not exactly forced to relocate to Rabi Island, but there were severely misled in several ways (pp. 128-129). The indigenous people of Rabi Island were similarly relocated, in their case to nearby Taveuni Island. But as the Wikipedia notes, “The original inhabitants still maintain their links to the island, and still use the Rabi name in national competitions.” The Wikipedia article on Rabi also provides a good description of the relocation process:

The Banabans came to Fiji in three major waves, with the first group of 703, including 318 children, arriving on the BPC vessel, Triona, on Fiji Rabi Map15 December 1945. Accompanying them were 300 other I-Kiribati. The Banabans had been collected from Japanese internment camps on various islands; they were not given the option of returning to Banaba, on the grounds that the Japanese had destroyed their houses – this was not true. They were told that there were houses waiting for them on Rabi: in fact they were given tents to live in and food rations which lasted for only two months. It was the middle of the hurricane season, and they were still weak from years of Japanese imprisonment: 40 of the oldest Banabans died. They were joined by a second wave between 1975 and 1977, with a final wave arriving between 1981 and 1983, following the ending of phosphate mining in 1979. Recognizing the lack of opportunities for Banabans in their homeland, the Rabi Council assisted the remaining population to move to Rabi after 1981.

But not all of the Banaban people relocated to or remained on Rabi Island; as noted above, some 335 do live on their home island today. Not surprisingly, geopolitical tensions persist. Rabi islanders are angry that only people living on Banaba are eligible for proceeds from the 614-million (Australian dollars) trust fund established from phosphate mining. In 2006, the representative of the Rabi Council of Leaders and Elders in the Kiribati parliament called for Banaba to secede from Kiribati and join Fiji. Other local leaders have called on Banaba to declare its own independence. Proposals to reopen the phosphate mines have generated considerable discontent among the Banaban people.

Kiribati is, of course, keen to retain Banaba Island. Not only does its government view the Banaba as an intrinsic part of its own territorial domain, but it also sees the comparative lofty island (with a high point of 81 m [266 ft]) as a potential place of refuge in case rising sea-level inundates the county’s atolls.

Janice Cantieri posted a preliminary report on the plight of the people of Banaba as part of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling initiative in July 2015. Evidently, more of her stories will be forthcoming.

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Populating the Pilbara—And the Controversial Phenomenon of Gina Rinehart

As the previous post noted, the major urban areas of Australia have recently posted significant population gains whereas most rural areas have registered demographic declines. The situation is a bit different, however, in Western Australia, the world’s second largest (by territory) “stateoid” (or first-order political division of a sovereign state). To be sure, the outskirts of greater Perth have seen major population gains just as the agricultural heartland, the so-called Wheat Belt, has lost residents. But the rural Pilbara region in the northwest defies such tendencies, growing at a rapid clip. The Pilbara is still very lightly settled, with roughly 50,000 people living in 193,823 sq mi (502,000 km2), an area roughly the size of Spain. (The region is actually planning to capitalize on its sparse settlement, launching an “international tourism campaign targeting the Pilbara as a place where visitors can come and experience ‘nothing…’”) But with some of the richest mineral deposits on Earth, the Pilbara is developing rapidly, and hence is attracting new residents.

Settling people in the Pilbara has long been a controversial matter, as discussed in a previous GeoCurrents post. The region’s remote location and harsh natural conditions deter settlement, as does its extraordinarily high cost of living. As a result, most mine workers have been employed in a “fly in/fly out” basis, living permanently in Perth and “commuting” to the mines for intensive work stints of a week or two. Mining operations in the region have also invested heavily in automation. Gargantuan robot trucks and driverless trains are among the most recent innovations. But automation cannot meet all of the region’s labor demands, leading to an expanding population. Limited infrastructure, however, has generated a severe housing crunch. In some coastal areas, workers are increasingly living on boats, leading local officials to fret over lightly regulated “boatels” clogging up local harbors. One Australian politician recently described the Pilbara as a “basket case” where residents are “reduced to tears by high rents and inadequate services.”

As many Australians are reluctant to endure such conditions, the Pilbara’s business and governmental leaders are increasingly looking to foreign labor. A local council in the region recently announced that it “wants to import foreign workers for smaller businesses in the retail, hospitality and other sectors that are struggling to secure local employees.” The council is eyeing China and the Philippines as potential labor sources. Earlier this year, the Australian government agreed to a new initiative that would allow the Pilbara mining sector to bring in much larger numbers of workers from abroad. As reported in May by Australia’s ABC Rural news service:

 

The Federal Government has awarded its first Enterprise Migration Agreement (EMA) to Hancock Prospecting’s Roy Hill mine, allowing it to import overseas workers for the construction of the project.

The project is expected to demand 8,000 workers during construction and the EMA will allow Gina Rinehart’s Hancock Prospecting to bring in up to 1,700 foreign workers, but only after genuine efforts have been made to recruit Australians.

The agreement requires overseas workers to be paid the same as locals and also requires Hancock to provide 2,000 training places for domestic workers.

 

This agreement has been highly controversial for several reasons. Australia has long restricted blue-collar migration in order to maintain a high wage structure, and many Australians fear that this policy is now threatened. Some also think that the deal gives unfair advantage to Hancock Prospecting, the privately owned firm that controls vast land leases in the Pilbara, and to its controversial executive chair, Gina Rinehart. Rinehart is certainly a force to be reckoned with. She is often described as the richest Australian and as the world’s wealthiest woman, but such characterization may not do justice to her fortune. Her net worth is estimated to be as high as US$29 billion, and it is growing so rapidly—at A$52m a day*—that some experts think that she will soon become the richest person in the world.

Rinehart’s ambitions are by no means limited to the acquisition of wealth. She has recently purchased major shares in several media organizations, perhaps hoping to use such holdings to sway public opinion. Her political views are deeply conservative. She harshly criticizes Australia’s high taxes and extensive regulations, and she supports groups that deny global warming. She is especially critical of her country’s high wage rates, and she recently shocked many Australians when she declared that “Africans willing to work for $2 a day should be an inspiration.”

The fact that Rinehart’s political activities have intensified of late may be linked to threats to her ever-burgeoning fortune. The Pilbara mining industry, with its iron-ore mainstay, is tightly linked to China’s industrial expansion. As evidence mounts that the Chinese economy is slowing, concern grows in Western Australia that the mining boom may soon run out of steam.

Rinehart’s latest attempt to influence public opinion comes in the form of her recently published book, Northern Australia and then Some: Changes We Need to Make our Country Rich. The work is controversial, to say the least. Crikey (“Independent Media; Independent Minds”) reviewer Cameron Woodhead recently described the book as “weirdly amateur,” with ideas that are “mad beyond the dreams of Tamburlaine.” I was tempted to read the book myself in preparation for this post, until I learned that it contains a substantial selection of its author’s poetry, although doggerel might be the more appropriate term. As Woodhead frames the matter: “if you overlook the Genghis Khan-like sentiments, Gina’s verses are the kind of naïve art — articulate, with some command of metre — that might arouse the admiration of neighbours in the local paper”. He also provides a nice sampling, written in honor of Joh Bjelke-Petersen, a former Premier of Queensland:

 

You travelled far and earned great fame, but always you stayed

loyal

To family and friends who supported you with time and love and

toil.

You spread decency and honour, pride in family and Queen.

And when others wavered from their path, your conscience

remained clean.

We can admire the Sir Joh legacy just by looking around your state.

Parkinson’s has laid you low, but you will always be

The very best Queenslander, especially for me.

 

Bjelke-Petersen was himself a highly controversial figure. As one of the commentators on Woodhead’s review (Christopher Nagle) memorably puts it: “Bjelkes may have been a corrupt tropical fascist bastardo, but he left his state solvent… Bless his miserable rotten heart.”

* As of May, 2012.

 

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