City of Sydney (Elections) Amendment Bill 2014

City of Sydney (Elections) Amendment Bill 2014

(Second Reading Debate, 17 September 2012, Legislative Assembly, NSW Parliament)

It will not come as a surprise to members that I strongly oppose this City of Sydney Amendment (Elections) Bill 2014. I share the widespread community outrage at the Government's support of this highly offensive bill and the lack of consultation concerning the proposals that will make fundamental changes to City of Sydney elections. The bill will establish a permanent electoral roll for non-residential voters in City of Sydney elections and give corporations, big business and property owners the right of up to two votes. The bill proposes that responsibility for the roll and elections be transferred from the independent Electoral Commissioner to the city's general manager. 

As we heard from the former Premier, when introducing the bill the Hon. Robert Borsak from the Shooters and Fishers Party made no attempt to disguise his aim to change voting rules in order to change the make-up of the council. His speech raves about his dislike of the democratically elected Lord Mayor and the council's work on clean energy and bicycle paths. He thanks Alan Jones and the Daily Telegraph for supporting the bill. Indeed, it is almost like we are living in an alternative universe where Alan Jones, the Daily Telegraph and gun toting cowboys are forming the agenda and drafting poor legislation. 

It is clear that the Government's support of this bill is part of its "get Clover" agenda and it is clear from the former Premier's speech that he is threatened that the anti-Clover agenda has been hijacked from the Liberal Party by the Shooters and Fishers Party. There has been no consultation with the City of Sydney on the development of the bill and no attempt to cooperatively work with the city to address concerns about business voting. The Government believes that this bill will deliver the lord mayor it wants not the lord mayor the community wants. The Premier, local government Minister, Liberal councillor Edward Mandla and the Hon. Robert Borsak repeatedly chant that there should be no taxation without representation in an effort to justify this immoral manipulation of democracy. 

It may come as a surprise to members that I am a descendent of John Hart who signed the Declaration of Independence. In America people were fighting against the landed gentry and landowners who had an overly dominant view of the way people lived. There are parallels to this bill—it is giving more votes to property owners—then it was fox hunters and now it is the Shooters and Fishers. A key principle of democracy is that all members of the community have equal access to the political process regardless of how much money each earns; one vote one value. No matter how much tax each person pays all should be equal on polling day. Giving businesses two votes when residents only have one subverts the principle to base representation of wealth. I know that a number of members opposite have said that businesses will not be given two votes, it will be two individuals voting on behalf—

ACTING-SPEAKER (Mr Lee Evans): Order! There is too much audible conversation in the Chamber. Hansard is having difficulty hearing the member for Sydney. It is a disgrace that members are having a chat, take it outside or members will be sent outside. I expect the member to be heard in silence. The member for Coffs Harbour is on three calls.

Mr John Barilaro: Now get back to Clover's speech.

Mr ALEX GREENWICH: You guys are obsessed with Clover, get over it. As I was saying, we are told by those opposite that businesses will not be given two votes; it will be two individuals voting on behalf of a business. The Government justifies this bill by saying that businesses need to have a greater say and business voting must be increased. There is an inconsistency in that statement. The Government claims that businesses should have two votes because the average household consists of two persons, but that is ridiculous. Resident voters do not represent their household; they represent themselves. People who are homeless can also vote in Australia. 

Non-residential voters, on the other hand, are enrolled to vote to represent the interests of the businesses that nominated them. Those interests should not be double that of residents. Giving businesses the vote is not only philosophically flawed but also based on false figures. The Hon. Robert Borsak claimed in his speech, which the Minister and Premier have happily repeated in the media, that CBD businesses account for 78 per cent of the City of Sydney's rate revenue. The Lord Mayor points out that business rates contributed to less than 32 per cent of the City of Sydney—

Mr John Barilaro: It is Clover's speech.

Mr ALEX GREENWICH: I am interested in facts. Surely the Government should have consulted the city about this matter before repeating the Shooters and Fishers Party propaganda verbatim? The Coalition-dominated Legislation Review Committee has agreed and asserts that giving corporations, ratepaying lessees, and occupiers of rateable land two votes gives them disproportional influence on election of councillors and mayors in comparison to residents.

The DEPUTY-SPEAKER (Mr Thomas George): Order! There is too much audible conversation in the Chamber.

Mr ALEX GREENWICH: Democracy should not be based on wealth and at a later stage I will move to amend the bill so that if businesses, non-residential ratepayers and property owners are given two votes their vote is reduced to one. The Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters inquiry that led to this bill was referred to as a rort by committee member the Hon. Amanda Fazio. She has publicly commented that the committee gave undue weight to the evidence of two first-term Liberal City of Sydney councillors and that recommendations on the inquiry were not bipartisan, as the Government claims. 

The shadow Minister for Local Government informs me that Labor members on the committee opposed giving businesses two votes. It recommended the Melbourne model which has been labelled the "Melbourne mistake" following a Victorian Liberal Government initiated review. A change to the eligibility franchise and value of non-residential votes should not be introduced without exhibition of a draft bill.

Mr Paul Toole: Are they going to change?

Mr ALEX GREENWICH: They have not responded to it yet. Maybe it would be sensible to await the outcome. A draft bill and discussion paper for public comment is required, especially at a time when the Government is embroiled in Independent Commission Against Corruption inquiries that show members making illegal donations and handouts for businesses. The bill is filled with unintended consequences that would have been picked up if the Government had bothered to consult. Because the bill adopts the Melbourne model, despite its different rating system, businesses that lease their premises, and can currently vote because they pay $5,000 annual rent, would have lost their right to vote under the original bill.

This is because the bill restricted the number of voters for each parcel of land to two votes to share among owners and tenants. While the Government amended this flaw in the upper House, it shows how poorly thought through its support for the bill has been. It supported and praised the bill publicly before it had even seen or properly assessed it. It took me and others to assess it, and when I informed the media of the flaw and the Minister was questioned, I was called a liar. It became clear that the Minister for Local Government and the Shooters and Fishers Party did not realise that Sydney's rating system is different from Melbourne's. 

The Government has initiated two reviews into local government: the Sansom review, which is looking at governance, structural arrangements and boundary changes; and the Local Government Acts Taskforce, which is developing recommendations to modernise local government legislation. The dramatic proposals in this bill are being introduced in complete isolation from these expert-led reviews. If the Government is serious about urgently boosting the non-residential vote, it could support my bill, which provides a quick, simple and effective way to ensure that business and property owners can be added to the electoral roll. My bill has the support of Local Government NSW and the City of Sydney. 

Of great concern is that under this bill the general manager would manage the permanent non-residential rolls, not the independent Electoral Commissioner. That is tantamount to the Department of Premier and Cabinet being responsible for the State electoral rolls and it puts local elections at risk of interference from a politically motivated administration. Management of local government elections was transferred to the Electoral Commissioner in an amendment moved by the Hon. Duncan Gay to the Local Government Legislation Amendment (Elections) Bill 1998. The Liberal Party of Australia (New South Wales Division) states in its submission to the inquiry into the 2012 Local Government Elections that its position is that all future local government elections should be conducted by the New South Wales Electoral Commission. [Extension of time agreed to.]

The Government's amendments agreed to in the upper House to allow councils to outsource management of electoral rolls merely tinker at the edges. They fail to fix the fundamental problem that a politically motivated council will still be able to manage the non-residential roll for upcoming elections. I will move an amendment to make the Electoral Commissioner responsible for the non-residential rolls and elections. Under my proposed amendment, as is currently the case, the cost will of course be borne by the City of Sydney. The accuracy of proposed permanent non-residential rolls cannot be guaranteed. 

In the second reading speech, the Hon. Robert Borsak stated that businesses are more stable than residents and therefore the non-residential rolls will be more accurate. That is rubbish. Residents can be on the electoral roll only once for one local government area. When a resident moves, he or she updates his or her details once for all elections—Federal, State and local—and there is always a rush to do that before any election. As a result, their out-of-date details are scrapped. However, non-residential voters can appear on multiple local government rolls leaving no incentive to update changes such as closing down a business or selling a property. That allows significant scope for rorting. As I said, 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". Following that advice, non-residential rolls were destroyed after each election. 

I understand the concerns of business that it is excessively onerous to re-enrol at each election. That is why my City of Sydney Amendment (Business Voting and Council Elections) Bill would create permanent registers of non-residential voters while requiring confirmation of details by the Electoral Commissioner prior to each election to create the rolls. The integrity of the electoral roll is paramount to fair and democratic elections and I am horrified that the Government is willing to compromise that. While it would be illegal for candidates and businesses to create shell companies to rig the outcome of an election, Independent Commission Against Corruption expos prove that the law cannot always prevent corruption or ensure that it is detected before the damage is done. Under this bill it is not even clear that the City of Sydney's external probity auditor would be able to inspect the register. I will move an amendment to make the registers and rolls public so that any allegations of sham or non-existent businesses can be investigated. 

This bill makes it compulsory for non-residential voters to be on the electoral roll and to vote. Businesses that fail to provide relevant information for the register will be issued with a $2,200 fine and businesses that do not vote will be issued with a $55 fine. This will be a great impost on businesses, some of which do not want to vote. New South Wales Business Chamber senior policy manager Luke Aitken told the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters that "there is too much focus on the compulsory aspect", asserting that to increase business participation it is more important to make the process easier, as it will be under my bill. Voting goes against the constitution of some business and nongovernment organisations; their constitutions can require them to be apolitical, as is the case with the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras constitution. It is not appropriate to impose a vote on such businesses. I will move an amendment giving non-residential voters the option to opt out of voting. 

It is ironic that the Government has spent the past few weeks touting that Sydney should adopt this model because Melbourne does it when only last week the Victorian Local Government Electoral Review Committee released a report recommending that Melbourne replace two votes for business with one, transfer management of the non-residential electoral roll to the independent Electoral Commissioner and cease automatic enrolment of non-residential voters. It is negligent for the Government to pursue a model that experts declare in practice is undermining democracy. The Government must respect democracy and heed this warning. In an online blog on 5 September, Antony Green called the bill a stalking horse and stated that it is hard to see it as anything but "the State Government trying to get its way on who should be Lord Mayor of Sydney". 

The Sydney Morning Herald editorial of 16 September stated that the bill "threatens to expose the Baird Government to a campaign against greater developer power at the March election". This entire process has clearly been a political witch hunt by the Shooters and Fishers Party backed by the Government and the Hon. Fred Nile. What a disgrace! The Government must start working with the City of Sydney and all businesses and residents if it genuinely wants to help increase the business vote. My bill provides an opportunity to quickly and simply ensure that all non-residential voters can exercise their existing right to vote. I urge the Government to support it and to vote against this undemocratic bill introduced by the Shooters and Fishers Party. 

We have been given a heavily amended piece of legislation and we have had only a few hours to review it. I therefore move:

      That the motion be amended by leaving out all words after “That” and inserting instead: “the second reading be deferred until 19 November 2014.”

This amendment will provide members with the time to scrutinise the bill fully. 

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