As we’ve already noticed, very few places are trying to hold elections in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. Queensland last Saturday was one of the exceptions, with elections for local government across the state.
In most of Queensland, however, local government isn’t really local. The relentless pursuit of amalgamations by successive state governments has resulted in the state having only about half the number of municipalities it had a century ago, despite catering for about six times the population.
Nor has it been a matter of tidying up outback shires with hardly any people. The map of the state’s far north and west doesn’t look very different now from in the early twentieth century. Instead, amalgamation has been about creating grotesquely large units in the populated parts of the state.
Other states have done this as well, but Queensland has been a leader. The most drastic amalgamation was one of the first, when in 1925 twenty municipalities were merged into the Brisbane City Council, which now has a population of about one and a quarter million – by far the largest “local” government area in the country.
At the time, the move could at least be justified on the basis that it was uniting the whole of the capital’s metropolitan area. But that’s no longer the case; Brisbane’s suburbs have sprawled well beyond the council boundary and now embrace another four very large municipalities, all with populations in the hundreds of thousands, plus some areas even further out.
A case can be made for having a single authority for the metropolitan area, just as a case can be made for having actual local government in the suburbs. But the case for this strange in-between situation – with multiple councils too big to be local – is elusive, to say the least.
It does, however, mean that the elections to Brisbane City Council attract a lot of attention. The major parties run in them, and they are scrutinised for possible trends in state or even national politics. With a Queensland state election due in October, there’s even more reason to pay attention this year.
But anyone expecting a dramatic shift has been disappointed. The incumbent mayor, Adrian Schrinner of the Liberal National Party (LNP), has been reasonably comfortably re-elected. The LNP vote is down by about six points (although it will improve as more postals are counted), but most of that has gone to the Greens; Labor’s vote is substantially unchanged. (Official figures here.)
Mayor and council are elected separately, with the council based on 26 single-member wards. At the last election, in 2016, the LNP won 19, as against five to Labor and one each to Greens and independents. Assuming that the LNP holds the three wards currently in doubt, that result will be unchanged, suggesting that in a time of crisis Queenslanders are inclined to stick with the status quo.
Turnout, not surprisingly, is down, particularly ordinary votes – that is, people attending a local polling place on election day. Figures are still very much incomplete, but Ben Raue estimates that such votes in Brisbane have declined from 61.4% of the total enrolment to about 22.3%.
It’s also a study in the effects of fiddling with electoral systems. Four years ago, as some readers may remember, the Queensland Labor government disgraced itself by legislating to reintroduce compulsory preferential voting in state elections, in the hope of winning some electoral advantage. But it failed to make the same change for council elections, partly through fear of enabling the Greens to win more seats.
It looks to have worked on that score, but there are a couple of wards in which Labor candidates might have got over the line if Greens voters had had to fill in every square – or even if they’d had the benefit of how-to-vote cards, which were banned for health reasons. We’ll have to wait for the final figures to see how much difference it might have made.
What we can say is that it’s confused the voters. There were two state by-elections held on the same day, in Bundamba and Currumbin. Both were held by their incumbent parties (Labor and LNP respectively), but voters there had to queue twice at their polling places: once for council ballots, which were optional preferential, and once for the by-elections, which were compulsory preferential.
Sure enough, the informal vote in the latter jumped, from 8.2% to 10.8% in Bundamba, and from 4.7% to 7.7% in Currumbin. Again, the lack of how-to-vote cards wouldn’t have helped, but on a low turnout and with only four candidates in each that’s a remarkable informal rate.