(Debate, 5 November 2014. Legislative Assembly, NSW Parliament)
The Local Government Amendment (Elections) Bill is this government’s latest chapter in its book on how to manipulate local government elections. The City of Sydney’s corruption-free and stable government is again the focus of yet another Liberal government attack.
We recently got legislation that doubled the vote of big businesses and property owners while residents only get one. The aim: to reduce the influence of residents in City of Sydney elections given they have proven to elect Clover Moore. That bill, which changed voting rules and fundamentally impacted on democracy, was rushed through without independent assessment.
Now, under this bill, the government proposes to enable the City of Sydney council to choose to conduct its future elections exclusively by postal voting.
Under the current system, voters cast their vote at booths across the local government area on polling day or at a pre-polling location in the two weeks before, or they can opt for a postal vote. The bill would allow a council to remove attendance voting options and restrict elections entirely to postal votes.
It is difficult to understand how removing voting options can improve democracy.
In introducing the bill, the minister referred to so-called “compelling” benefits of universal postal voting to voter participation quoting 2012 council elections in Victoria where councils with universal postal voting had a turnout of 72.53 per cent compared to 63.62 per cent for other councils.
These so-called compelling figures reflect the outcomes for 70 Victorian councils which conducted elections entirely by postal vote and eight which maintained attendance voting.
While the Victorian Electoral Commission speculated at a Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters hearing on 28 February that the increased turnout could be due to the convenience of postal voting, the evidence is far from conclusive and this proposal needs close assessment.
The number of councils with attendance voting is small which makes comparisons difficult and could reflect the effect of other factors. Furthermore, while representatives from the Victorian Electoral Commission stated that exclusive postal voting increases the turnout for people over 70 years and non-resident voters, there has been no assessment of the impact on other voters.
How would exclusive postal voting affect young people and those living in share houses? Many young people don’t check their mail and have piles of un-actioned envelopes of incoming mail in their home. I regularly hear from constituents who fail to open infringement notices until it is too late.
Many of my constituents are time poor and the added paper work of postal voting for an elector compared to just rocking up to a polling booth on the weekend may discourage some.
At this time it would be more useful for the government to put its energy into introducing more ways for eligible electors to cast their vote by allowing for electronic or i-voting. This would surely encourage more people to vote, especially younger voters, and reduce informal voting.
Also, postal voting campaigns are expensive to run. If postal voting is compulsory, the candidates who can afford postal vote campaigns, in addition to the electoral commission’s enrolment campaign, will have an unfair advantage, especially given there are no spending caps for local government election campaigns.
The government could provide for postal voting for non-resident voters while referring the matter of exclusive postal voting for residents to the Local Government Acts Taskforce to investigate the impacts. Democracy is too important to take chances.
My City of Sydney Amendment (Business Voting and Council Elections) Bill included automatic postal voting for businesses, property owners and rate payers while giving them the ability to opt out. The government should have supported this proposal.
If councils can limit elections exclusively to postal votes, they will choose whichever option is most likely to reinstate their power. This is completely undemocratic.
One cannot help but wonder the motives.
I am also opposed to changes that would make the non-residential rolls permanent for all local government areas. As I stated when permanent non-residential rolls were introduced in City of Sydney elections, they can be dangerously inaccurate and open to rorting because non-residential voters can be on multiple local government rolls and don’t have triggers to keep their details up-to-date.
In 1995 the Crown Solicitor identified such serious inaccuracies with the permanent non-residential City of Sydney rolls that it concluded it was “unsafe to hold an election” and following its advice, non-residential rolls were destroyed after each election.
My bill on business voting created permanent registers for non-residential voters that the Electoral Commissioner confirmed before each election, ensuring the accuracy of the roll while removing the requirement for businesses to re-enrol for each election.
The bill does improve transparency for councils that run their elections which is something I support. I do not oppose provisions to allow a council to fill a councillor vacancy through a count back system however I understand there are different models and there should be independent assessment of the proposed model before it is implemented.
A healthy democracy does not change voting rules without being absolutely sure that changes will not disillusion or alienate voters. The issue should not be “cost per vote” but maximising the opportunity for eligible citizens to vote.
How could reducing the way people can cast their vote improve democracy?
The government’s agenda is to manipulate the outcome of elections and I do not support this bill.