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The Playmander was a form of electoral malapportionment in the Australian state of South Australiamarker, in place from 1936 to 1968. It consisted of rural districts enjoying a 2-to-1 advantage in the state parliament, even though they contained less than half of the population, as well as a change from multiple member to single member electorates, and the number of MPs in the lower house was reduced from 46 to 39.

The word Playmander is a portmanteau derived from the name of Premier Sir Thomas Playford and the political term gerrymander, though the system did not originate with Playford (it was introduced under his predecessor Richard Layton Butler) and was not technically a gerrymander (the latter does not imply malapportionment). Playford was its primary beneficiary, however, as his Liberal and Country League (LCL) party was able to stay in power for three decades even while losing several elections in terms of vote numbers.


With the merger of the Liberal Federation and the Country Party in 1932 to form the Liberal and Country League, the Country Party demanded key concessions as part of the deal, particularly to the electoral system. The system of rural overweighting was to increase to a 2:1 ratio, the number of MPs was to be reduced to 39 and the multi-member electorates were to be abandoned for single-member electorates. The changes would effectively lock the Labor Party out of power.

There was much uproar when they were brought in; Labor Member T.P. Howard declared that "the working class will not lay down like tame dogs under a system that will not give them proper representation". The electoral system contributed to Playford achieving a world-record for a democratically elected leader; he spent 27 years as Premier of South Australia. During this period, as a result of population changes, the rural overweighting strengthened Playford's hold on power. By 1965, two-thirds of the population resided in the Adelaide Metropolitan area, yet those living outside it elected two-thirds of the House of Assembly members. Rural areas, excepting industrial towns such as Whyallamarker, were likely to support the League. The Adelaide metropolitan area was overwhelmingly Labor, with the League only managing to gain seats in the wealthy 'eastern crescent' and around Holdfast Bay.

The system was eventually branded the 'Playmander' (a pun on the term Gerrymander) by political scientists, the Adelaide press and the articulate young Labor member, Don Dunstan. Dunstan, more than anyone else, was the driving force behind Labor both 'beating' the Playmander and changes being made to the electoral system. The latter, however, would not be implemented by Dunstan. The Playmander was eventually beaten at the 1965 election through the abandonment of a statewide campaign, and instead through direct targeting of the League's marginal seats. The Labor Party gained power under Frank Walsh, and in 1967, under Dunstan. However, they were defeated in 1968.

After gaining power on 46.8% of the vote, Liberal Premier Steele Hall instituted electoral reform that saw the establishment of 47 single-member electorates in 1968. There continued to be a slight overweighting but 28 seats were to be contested in Adelaide, making a win for the League a near-impossibility. When an election was called in 1970, the Labor Party gained power with 53.3% of the vote.

In 1973, Labor retained office with 54.5% of the vote, and the LCL became the South Australian division of the Liberal Party of Australia in 1974. Labor retained power in 1975 with a majority of seats but lost the vote on 49.2%, which saw Dunstan institute 'one vote one value' electoral reform, which meant that all electorates had to contain approximately the same number of enrolled voters. The reform solidified Labor's position, as the 'one vote one value' system did not take into account sizeable electoral majorities; much of the Liberal vote was held in ultra-safe rural seats where it was rendered useless. The Labor Party would hold power between 1970 and 1993, excepting a Liberal stint between 1979 and 1982. Labor then regained power in 2002 and has held office since. After John Bannon won in 1989 even after losing the vote at 48%, a referendum was passed which added a 'fairness clause' to electoral legislation, stipulating that boundaries must reflect results and as far as possible ensure that a party that wins more than 50% of the two-party-preferred vote will gain office, with boundaries to be re-drawn after each election.

Results 1938-70

The playmander began in 1936 and ended after 1968.
Results 1938-1970
1970 51.64 (27) 43.76 (20) 1.46 3.14 53.3 46.7
1968 51.98 (19) 43.82 (19) 1.03 (1) 3.18 53.2 46.8
1965 55.04 (21) 35.93 (17) 1.88 (1) 7.16 54.3 45.7
1962 53.98 (19) 34.51 (18) 3.15 (2) 8.37 54.3 45.7
1959 49.35 (17) 36.95 (20) 5.93 (2) 7.77 49.7 50.3
1956 47.37 (15) 36.69 (21) 7.34 (3) 8.60 48.7 51.3
1953 50.84 (15) 36.45 (20) 11.10 (4) 1.60 53.0 47.0
1950 48.09 (12) 40.51 (23) 10.07 (4) 1.34 48.7 51.2
1947 48.64 (13) 40.38 (23) 6.20 (3) 4.77
1944 42.52 (16) 45.84 (20) 6.64 (3) 5.00
1941 36.27 (13) 39.13 (21) 24.60 (5) 0.00
1938 26.16 (9) 33.44 (15) 34.08 (12) 6.21 (3)
Source: Australian Government and Politics Database and ABC for 2PP


  1. Labor and Liberal Parties, SA, Dean Jaensch, "A 2:1 ratio of enrolments in favour of the rural areas was in force from 1936."


  • Jaensch, Dean. (2006) When the state voting system defies all logic, The Advertiser, p18, 26 April 2006.

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