Australia recently had an election, a sentence that, from my fairly limited understanding of Australian politics, is almost always true. It provided the latest of those shock result that this decade’s politics seems to specialise in, with the right-wing government unexpectedly surviving and the left-wing opposition looking at a bit baffled in a “What else were we supposed to do?” kind of a way.
But the result wasn’t the thing that impressed me about it. What got me was the size of the constituencies.
Australia, remember, is huge, in a way that’s difficult to conceive of as a European. Perth is over 2,000 miles from Sydney – a distance that’s far enough to take you from London to Syria or Mali. But there aren’t quite 25 million people in Australia, well under half the population of the UK, and they tend to cluster in a few areas around the coast.
Consequently the country contains a lot of empty space. Which means that when the Australian Electoral Commission came up with boundaries for its parliamentary seats, this happened:
Whoa. Image: Australian Electoral Commission.
The six seats coloured on that map between them cover 6.1m km2 of Australia’s 8.0m km2. The other 146 seats get less than a quarter of the country’s landmass between them.
How big are we talking here? Well the largest of them is the Division of Durack, which covers 1.63m km2 – nearly two-thirds of the state of Western Australia. There is no European country that comes even close to being that size (unless you count Russia, which cheats by including a large chunk of Asia). This is an area three times the size of France. And it delivers one MP.
Wowser. Image: Barrylb/Wikimedia Commons.
Is it the largest constituency in the world, though?
Before getting into that, let’s provide some more context. The UK has a landmass of around 242,000km2 (or, not quite one sixth of Durack). The House of Commons has 650 constituencies. So the average UK parliamentary seat covers an area of around 373km2, which means you could get around 4,300 of the buggers into Durack.
There’s quite a lot of variation within that, though. The smallest constituency is Jeremy Corbyn’s own Islington North, which is just 7.4km2. The largest is rather bigger: Ross, Skye & Lochaber, a huge swathe of Highlands and islands, which is a relatively big 12,000km2, or well over a thousand times bigger.
Ross, Skye & Lochaber. Image: Wereon./Wikimedia Commons.
It’s still well over a thousand times smaller than Durack, though – so where might we find something bigger?
It’s tempting to look to the European Parliament on the grounds it covers most of a continent, but we instantly run into two issues. One is that most of its constituencies are multi-member PR ones, which feels like cheating. Another is that the biggest of them are entire European countries – and we already know that Durack is substantially bigger than all of those. The largest by area turns out to be France, which elects 79 MEPs and still only manages to be a third the size. So, that’s out.
One possibility is Alaska which, being a huge state with a tiny population, sends just one member to the US House of Representatives. I sort of assumed that was going to be my conclusion to this piece, on the grounds that Alaska is huge: to be specific, 1.72m km2. That’s slightly bigger than Durack, if by “slightly bigger” you mean “by an area large enough you could keep Portugal in it”.
Even that, though, isn’t the biggest. Canada is enormous – the second biggest country in the world by area – but most of its population lives hard by the southern border, leaving a vast wilderness in the north.
In that wilderness, you will find Nunavut, a federal election district which sends a single member to the House of Commons of Canada. It has an area of 1.88m km2.
The frozen north. Image: EOZyo/Wikimedia Commons.
That is, you will notice, bigger than Durack. It’s also, so far as much of the internet seems to think, the biggest electoral constituency in the world.
Except I think much of the internet is wrong.
Canada, remember, is only the second biggest country by area on the planet. The biggest is Russia. And leaving aside questions about what exactly counts as a democracy, Russia does hold elections to the Duma.
Those elections are fairly complicated: there’s a two-tier system, in which 225 of members are elected on a proportional, Russia-wide basis, and the other half represent specific constituencies. But nonetheless, that means there are 225 constituencies in Russia which elect a single representative to the country’s parliament.
The motherland: Yakutsk is in orange on the right. Image: Galmar/Wikmiedia Commons.
The biggest of these, best one can tell, is Yakutsk, which covers the entirety of the Sakha Republic, in Russia’s far east. That is bigger than Durack. A lot bigger. It covers an area of 3.1m km2. Which is very big indeed: nearly as big as India, but with roughly a billion fewer people.
It’s quite difficult to think of a profound conclusion to all this, so let’s end on an old favourite. This is one of the most mind-blowing maps I’ve ever seen. As many people live in the area coloured blue – which, not coincidentally, contains all the giant constituencies we’ve discussed in this piece – as live in the area coloured red (Bangladesh and a couple of Indian states).
Wow. Image: Ibisdigitalmedia.
The world is mostly empty.
You can read more about that last map here.