Local democracy in New South Wales

New South Wales goes to the polls tomorrow for local government elections, originally scheduled for September last year and postponed twice due to the pandemic. (The postponement only affects the current election, not future ones, so the new councillors will get terms of less than three years instead of the usual four.) Antony Green at the ABC has a comprehensive guide to what’s happening.

As Green admits in an accompanying blog post, this isn’t his most exciting election guide; he describes it as “more public service than news,” providing information from the official electoral commission site in more user-friendly form. But it offers a good opportunity to compare the condition of local democracy in NSW and Victoria – which, it pains me to say, is much to the advantage of the former.

Victoria can at least boast that it didn’t postpone its local elections: they happened last October (results are here). But it’s not clear that this was a gain for democracy; campaigning was severely restricted since the state was under lockdown at the time, and it’s arguable that a short postponement would have been preferable.

The lockdown was also used as a justification for holding the elections entirely by post. That was not unreasonable as an emergency measure, but it is clearly intended to become permanent. Only a minority of councils were using attendance voting even before Covid, and the new Local Government Act passed last year removes a council’s ability to make that choice: instead the method is to be prescribed by the minister.

The minister at the time, and the prime mover behind the act, was the subsequently-disgraced branch stacker Adem Somyurek. But postal voting was only part of his agenda: more serious was the minister’s new power to prescribe each council’s electoral system, with the default to be a system of single-member wards – thus eliminating the element of proportional representation provided by multi-member wards or unsubdivided councils.

Ben Raue at the Tally Room explained last year how that power was exercised: eight metropolitan councils were switched to single-member wards, and a ninth was prevented from switching away from them. Only two regional councils were switched the other way. The explicit intent of the changes was to harm the electoral chances of the Greens, Labor’s main rival at local level. Unless Somyurek’s fall prompts a change of heart, there will presumably be a further shift in the same direction prior to 2024.

I’m not as enamored as Raue is of the previous system of “representation reviews” by the Victorian Electoral Commission, which used to determine the size and ward system for councils. I don’t think that’s the commission’s expertise, and to the extent that there’s any discretion it should be left to the councils themselves (although not of course the drawing of ward boundaries, if applicable). But leaving it in the hands of the minister is clearly the worst option.

New South Wales is superior in all these things. Its elections are held under attendance voting (with postal votes available for those who need them), and they all involve proportional representation, either in multi-member wards or unsubdivided councils. Councils decide themselves between those options, subject to approval of their voters by referendum, and they also have the power to use above-the-line voting, enhancing the practical value of proportionality.

Councils in NSW also set their own size (again subject to referendum), within the statutory limits. And those limits are more generous, allowing up to 15 councillors whereas Victoria’s maximum is 12 – a difference that is bigger than it seems, because a council that wants to preserve an odd number plus a ward system in Victoria is effectively limited to nine.*

Both states have indulged in the mania for amalgamations, creating grotesquely large council areas. But in Victoria it was more sweeping, leaving it with an average size substantially larger: its 79 councils have an average population of about 84,000, whereas the 128 councils in NSW average about 64,000. And the ability to have more councillors in NSW adds strength to democracy: by my calculation, each councillor represents an average of 6,500 people, whereas in Victoria it is more than 10,000.

Local democracy has few friends in state governments of either persuasion. Politicians much prefer that local councils be seen as non-political service agencies rather than rival sites of democratic legitimacy, and they generally find willing allies in council bureaucrats.

Nonetheless, New South Wales has had more luck in conserving some democratic elements. If anyone is looking for an agenda to promote democracy in Victoria, copying NSW’s rules for local government elections – especially attendance voting and proportional representation – would be a good place to start.

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* With the minor refinement that in Victoria it’s possible to have wards of different sizes, an option that (sensibly, in my view) is not available in NSW.

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