Local Seats for Local People – Who Should be Allowed to Contest Elections

Whether candidates live in the electorate they contest is a question that induces rage with some voters.

Who are these blow-in candidates they’ve never heard of contesting the local seat?

It is a matter that raises particular attention in country seats, where being an outsider is a major disadvantage for a candidate.

But for political parties, trying to find candidates for your opponent’s safest seats is always difficult. It is an obvious truth of politics that the quality of a party’s candidates dips as the chances of the party winning a seat declines. It is a truth that becomes even more evident at elections where a party looks certain of defeat.

Serious political parties contest every seat, even if only to attract a few extra dollars from public election funding. But trying to find candidates that are qualified to stand, (think dual citizenship issues at Federal elections), doesn’t have an embarrassing social media history, and won’t start spouting loopy ideas that attract mainstream media attention, can be something of a challenge.

I originally wrote this post just before the 2012 Queensland election when a flock of youthful university students were parachuted by the Labor Party into electorates with which they had little or no connection. The inability to recruit even half-decent local candidates was a testament to the thrashing that the Bligh Labor government was about to receive at that election.

At the 2009 state election, Queensland Labor nominated final year Brisbane-based university student Mark Platt for the northern seat of Hinchinbrook. He had no connection with the local area, but his real sin was to speak to the local press and say he was unlikely to visit the electorate during the campaign.

When the LNP chose 19 year-old Michael Palmer as its candidate for Nudgee at the same election, it was controversial for different reasons. As the son of mining magnate and major LNP donor Clive Palmer, there were accusations of undue influence. Palmer junior later withdrew as an LNP candidate for the 2010 Federal election.

The problems faced by youthful candidates do not always come to broader attention. At the 2001 Federal election, the Liberal party nominated 20 year-old Gareth Perkins from the eastern suburbs of Sydney as its candidate in the ethnically diverse western Sydney seat of Prospect. Prospect was represented by Labor’s Janice Crosio, a formidable women with a rich baritone voice that put many male politicians to shame. She monstered young Perkins at the first candidate forum, theatrically presenting him with a street directory so he could find the electorate. It was an old stunt but a good one.

Wyatt Roy may later have become a poster boy for youthful candidates, but when he was first chosen as LNP candidate for Longman before the 2010 federal election, it was seen as a controversial move. Many in his party were concerned it could ruin LNP chances of winning the seat. He won in 2010, and in 2013, but was defeated in 2016 after being elevated to the outer ministry by Malcolm Turnbull.

Youthful candidates contesting unwinnable seats is often a training ground for future politicians. Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton was just 18 when he first entered the lion’s den by contesting the safe Labor seat of Lytton against Tom Burns at the 1989 Queensland election. Christopher Pyne was 22 when he ran against Premier John Bannon at the 1989 South Australian election. Future Queensland Attorney General Paul Lucas was 24 when he ran in the safe National seat of Carnarvon at the 1986 state election. Queensland Deputy Premier Jackie Trad was 26 when she contested rural Cunningham at the 1998 Queensland election.

Former NSW Liberal Leader Kerry Chikarovski was 25 when she left the safety of the North Shore to run in the ultra-safe Labor seat of Cabramatta at the 1981 state election. Cabramatta was later represented by Labor’s Reba Meagher, whose youth and complete lack of previous connection with Cabramatta were raised at every election.

So if age is no barrier to running for Parliament, what about residence? Should there be a legal requirement that candidates live in an electorate before nominating? As a minimum, should they be on the local electoral roll?

I don’t believe they should. If voters are happy to elect an outsider they believe will be a good representative, they should not be prevented from doing so. I see no reason to pass a law restricting who can nominate as a candidate based on residence. Better to allow anyone to nominate and let voters decide whether being a local matters.

Since the Australian colonies were granted self-government in the 1850s, it has never been a requirement that candidates be locals. Indeed, in the days when land transport was arduous and MPs were unpaid, it was normal practice for far flung electorates to elect high-profile city candidates to represent their interests in Parliament.

In nineteenth century New South Wales, country seats would sometimes compete to have senior city-based politicians represent them. In an era when New South Wales elections were held over several weeks, the campaign would begin with senior politicians competing head-to-head in the seats of East Sydney and West Sydney. Defeated candidates would then seek rural electorates as sites for temporary representation.

In his four decades in Parliament, Sir Henry Parkes usually represented city electorates, but at various times retreated to represent such far-flung districts as Kiama, Mudgee, Tenterfield and Argyle, at various times also attempting to win Braidwood and Maitland East.

The Labor Party from its earliest days used local Labour Electoral Leagues to choose its candidates, and it was the rise of the Country Party after 1910 that also made local representation a virtue on the conservative side of politics. The Nationalist Party of the day would often parachute city-based politicians into rural electorates, and putting forward candidates chosen from local party branches was a critical factor in the early growth of the Country Party.

At the 2012 Queensland election, the decision of LNP Leader Campbell Newman to contest the Labor electorate of Ashgrove was a central feature of the campaign. Newman did not live in the electorate, a fact that Labor MP Kate Jones wielded constantly in her unsuccessful re-election campaign. It worked slightly better when Jones returned to defeat Newman in 2015.

Yet in the past, immensely popular party leaders have represented electorates with which they had little or no connection.

For instance, Prime Minister John Howard represented the Sydney electorate of Bennelong for 33 years and was often presented as having a long connection with the seat.

In fact Howard grew up in Earlwood and Hurlstone Park in Sydney’s south. In 1968 he moved into and contested the state seat of Drummoyne, again south of the harbour. Howard only moved north of the bridge after marrying in the early 1970s, moving to Wollstonecraft in the electorate of Bennelong, where long-serving Liberal MP Sir john Cramer was soon to retire.

Howard was first elected in 1974, but Wollstonecraft was removed from Bennelong at the 1977 election. Howard continued to represent the electorate for the next 30 years even as successive redistributions moved Bennelong further and further away from where he lived.

Former NSW Premier Neville Wran was even more tenuously connected to his electorate, Bass Hill, which he represented with massive majorities from 1973 until 1986.

Wran was a wealthy barrister and member of the NSW Legislative Council. He lived in affluent Darling Point and was parachuted into Bass Hill by the Labor Party just before the 1973 election in a move by Labor head office to see him replace Pat Hills as Labor leader after the election.

There was some unhappiness amongst local branches that Wran would not move into the electorate, though some understanding why Wran was not going to abandon Darling Point for Sydney’s ‘fibro belt’.

Wran understood the concerns and learnt to dress and drive appropriately when visiting his electorate. He purchased a second hand Holden for electorate visits, accepting that his Jaguar XJ6 was not an appropriate mode of transport for arriving at Bass Hill Labor Party branch meetings.

A concentration on where someone lives today can also distract from whether someone would be a good representative for the local area based on past connections.

In February 2011, the voters in the outer north-west Melbourne electorate of Broadmeadows went to the polls at a by-election following the resignation of former Premier John Brumby. His Labor replacement was Frank McGuire, who did not live in Broadmeadows. Like many senior Victorian MPs, McGuire was much happier living in the nicer suburbs of Melbourne between the Yarra and Port Phillip Bay.

Under no residential qualification would McGuire have qualified as a candidate for Broadmeadows. However, Frank McGuire and his brother Eddie are quintessential Broadmeadows boys having grown up in the area, and both had devoted time and money to providing public services in the electorate. The voters of Broadmeadows were happy to elect McGuire as their representative despite him no longer living in the area.

Residence can sometimes become a problem for candidates. While candidates do not have to live in an electorate, they are required to be on the electoral roll somewhere, as the Victorian Liberal Party found out in 2002.

Shadow Treasurer Robert Dean had represented the state seat of Berwick since 1992 and had won a bitterly contested pre-selection for the new seat of Gembrook. Dean owned a house in inner-eastern Melbourne but had rented a property in his electorate where he was registered on the electoral roll.

However, Dean had moved out of his rented property, and at some point a roll cleanse identified him as no longer living at the address. The Liberal campaign at the 2002 election was de-railed when it was informed by the Victorian Electoral Commission that Dean could not be nominated as he was not on the electoral roll anywhere in Victoria.

It is the central nomination of candidates that has made it easier for political parties to nominate outsiders in electorates. While candidates have never needed to live in an electorate, until 1984 at Federal elections, they needed to be nominated by a set number of locals who were on the electoral roll for the electorate.

When party registration laws were first introduced for Federal elections in 1984, the requirement for party candidates to seek nominators was abandoned. Having already proved that the party had the required number of members, parties were permitted to nominate candidates under the name of the party’s registered officer. All states have since duplicated the Federal laws.

While Independents and candidates of unregistered parties still need to ask local voters to sign their nomination forms, political parties can now nominate candidates with no local input. The increasing use of this provision by minor parties is one of the reasons why the average number of candidates per seat has risen over the last two decades.

Residency matters more in rural electorates, and also in more insular urban electorates. At the Wentworth by-election in 2018, some local Liberals were miffed that their candidate Dave Sharma had committed the ultimate Sydney social sin by contesting Wentworth despite living on the other side of Sydney Harbour.

For the looming Eden-Monaro by-election, Andrew Constance was briefly putting himself forward as a possible Liberal candidate. Constance has represented the local state seat of Bega for 17 years. But he lives in Batemans Bay, often but not currently in the electorate of Eden-Monaro. Strict residency rules would prevent Constance from nominating, despite having spent part of last summer fighting fires and defending his home with the locals.

Where a candidate lives often matters more in party pre-selection, especially in states where local membership ballots are used to choose candidates.

There have also been elections and by-elections where outside candidates have nominated to highlight a policy challenge to an MP or candidate. Limiting who can stand prevents this tactic being used to raise policy issues.

On balance, for all the reasons I’ve raised in this post, I see no reason why residency in an electorate should be used to prevent a candidate being nominated.

If residency really matters to voters, they are free to vote against candidates that do not live in the local area. But I see no reason why the range of candidates offered to voters should be limited by imposing a residency criteria. Allow voters to be presented with a broad field of candidate, and let the voters decide if being a local is the biggest issue.

(Source – This post is an updated version of a post I published during the 2012 Queensland election campaign. You can find the original post here.)

9 thoughts on “Local Seats for Local People – Who Should be Allowed to Contest Elections”

  1. Tom the first and best

    The main upside of a system of dividing legislative seats by geographical areas is the greater ability to achieve geographic diversity of representation (this greater ability is unsurprising as division by geography prioritises geographic diversity and geographically aligned forms of diversity over other forms of diversity, compared with more proportional systems). Significantly out of electorate resident MPs reduce geographic diversity, reducing the point of geographic division. There is also a strong class element to which seats have MPs who live significantly outside them, with urban and suburban areas with high proportions of lower-income people being the main areas that have MPs with significantly out of electorate primary residences, giving them proportionally less access to MPs and the wealthier areas were these MPs actually live proportionally greater access. Electorate-specific residency requirements are, at least in urban and suburban areas, a way of achieving a higher level of class diversity in access to power without socio-economic status quotas (which I suspect would be much more complicated than gender, race or age quotas). Allowing the political class to be overly concentrated is unfair on those it concentrates away from. (End part 1)

  2. Tom the first and best

    (Part 2) This extended not just to the lower house but also to the Senate and Legislative Councils of Victoria and WA, where the multi-member electorates balance geographic diversity with other forms of diversity. Living significantly outside such electorates, while representing them, is particularly ludicrous. Electorate residency requirements could also help cut ballot paper sizes by pushing smaller parties to focus their efforts, unless they are particularly well spread, also making Clive Palmer style money of a single person/small group party`s operations harder.

    There is a resonable argument for some leeway around redistributions, say a multi-year grandfathering after a redistribution takes effect, although many people do have to move for work and MPs are hardly underpaid. Residency restrictions could also encourage major parties to have larger and more geographically diverse membership bases to recruit candidates from and reduce central powers within parties using safe seats as quasi-sinecures.

  3. Another telling moment in the history of bourgeois democracy. That’s the sort of democracy where you have the bourgeois represent the immense majority, the working class, in Parliament. The rank and file of the working class have no representatives in government or indeed, in the economy they operate in exchange for the market price of their skills.


    Because they are deemed not to be competent by their masters in the employing and landlord classes. The rank and file might actually pass legislation which would adequately tax the wealth of the bourgeois, tax it for providing revenue to fund public health, education and welfare, including the age pension. Such political moves would disturb the market (read investors aka bourgeois) and make them angry.

    1. The working class are no longer the “immense majority” in Australia, and haven’t been since well before Australia’s last working class Prime Minister, Paul Keating. The best estimate at the moment is that no more than a quarter of Australians are working class, overshadowed by the absolute majority who are middle class.

      https://study.com/academy/lesson/australian-social-class-system.html and https://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-10-28/social-class-survey-where-you-fit-in-australia/6869864?nw=0

      The other observation is that self-identification is a very bad way of determining the facts. A person may still identify as working class despite being employed in a mining job at $250,000 a year with a principal residence, holiday home, two investment properties and yearly holidays overseas.

  4. Residency requirements for State and Federal Parliaments would be idiotic and anti-democratic. The great majority of electors have more sense than to agonise where a candidate lives. It can pose problems for a Member who refuses to move into their seat (if it is a safe seat where a member can expect a longer tenure) but the democratic system sorts it out anyway.
    It is akin to the nonsense that term limits should be set. Leave it to electors (and Party preselectors) to move on long-serving incumbents who have passed their use-by date.

    1. Tom the first and best

      State and municipal elections already have residency requirements for candidates, you have to be a resident of the state municipality.

      Voters also have to meet residency requirements for elections (local), they cannot go electorate shopping without changing their primary residence. Applying the same rules for candidates hardy seems unfair, idiotic or anti-democratic.

      Term limits are an entirely different issue and they are much harder in a parliamentary system (like we have), where compared to a presidential system (like in the USA) because the executive branch has to be in the parliament (usually with some seniority).

      COMMENT: The rules on residency for local government vary from state to state, and in some councils like Sydney City and Melbourne City, the rules are different to other councils.

      Your comparison on councillors with MPs doesn’t stand up. Councillors vote on issue that impact the whole council and not just their own ward. State MPs vote on issues that effect the whole state, not just their seat. Federal MPs vote on issues that impact the whole country, not just their own seat. The right to nominate each instance recognises that.

  5. If we did introduce a residency requirement then there ought to be a small amount of leeway.

    I therefore propose a “buffer zone” approach, with the buffer distance being equal (or at least proportional) to the square root of the electorate’s area. This reflects that “nearby” means different things depending on population density.

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