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