One vote, one value? Not in the City of Sydney

23 08 2014

‘No taxation without representation’.

NSW local government minister Paul Toole wrote in a comment piece for SBS on 18 August, apparently with his tongue firmly planted on his palate. As fond as I am of American history, pinching a line from the colonists to describe a legislative overhaul which will result in a blatant malapportionment of votes within the City of Sydney (CoS) is lazy and misleading.

Under the City of Sydney Amendment (Elections) 2014 bill, introduced by the Hon. Robert Borsak of the Shooters and Fishers Party:

  • the General Manager, not the Electoral Commissioner, will be responsible for keeping and maintaining an automatic non-residential roll. The Electoral Commissioner will review it to check the nominated voters are eligible (i.e. over 18 years old, eligible to vote in Australia and not on the CoS residential roll)
  • if a corporation is the owner, lessee or occupier of rateable land, the GM will enrol two people to vote based on a majority written nomination
  • if no nomination is received, the GM will automatically enrol the first two people from an alphabetical list of owners, lessees or occupiers

Mr Toole likens this malapportionment to four people living in Redfern each having a vote despite occupying the same address. This ignores the fairly basic concept that four individuals on the electoral roll all contribute to, and use services provided by each level of government, and only get one vote in the divisions in which they are enrolled.

Mr Toole is correct that non-residents have the right to vote in the City of Sydney, and that the poor turnout at the last election suggests they find the relatively new re-enrolment provisions cumbersome. I don’t have a problem with business people who have a stake in the way the city is run having a say at the ballot box. I’m no fan of the current Lord Mayor, and after 12 years living in an inner city suburb, I proudly support local, independent businesses. What I object to is the malapportionment of votes. A single business entity with multiple business locations (such as a fast food chain) might ‘only’ be eligible to two votes, but that’s still twice what mine is worth. Further, who is to say that the ‘small business people’ the minister speaks of will actually get a say? An absentee landowner living interstate could nominate themselves over the people who deserve it – the ones who run the business, whose livelihoods are affected by council decisions such as metered car parking. Also, the model proposed by the Shooters Party means a corporation with interests in several separate business entities with a physical address in the City of Sydney could have multiple punts come election day. #Imagen this: just a few years ago, a certain family’s group of companies leased two shops at Circular Quay. Fast-forward a few years and under the same circumstances, that family could arrange for different companies within its control to nominate up to four people to vote in the council election based on holding those two leaseholds alone. Tops.

According to Mr Toole, the ‘Australian Securities and Investment Commission, Land Property Management Authority and business surveys will guard against fraud or scam electors’. Who will pay for, and resource this extra policing of the vagaries of some 40,000 businesses, which could be under administration or investigation, change hands or directors? The minister talks of cutting red tape, but the Shooters Party Bill will create another task for both Federal and NSW government agencies. The minister appears to be unaware the LPMA was itself abolished in 2011, with its three divisions now under the purview of two State government departments.

State MP for Sydney, Alex Greenwich, has introduced his own Bill into the Legislative Assembly. In addition to pointing out the inconsistencies with adopting a model based on Melbourne city council, the City of Sydney (Business Voting and Council Elections) Bill 2014 address several concerns I have about the Shooters Party Bill, including the CoS GM’s management of the roll. Why should the GM keep the non-residential roll when the Electoral Commissioner is responsible for the residential roll? Regardless of the nature of the elected council, a council employee with oversight of who votes for the composition of the council which pays their salary is low-hanging fruit for vested interests. Further, the Greenwich amendments provide for in person or postal voting, and importantly, does not make voting compulsory for non-residents. Let’s face it: the person who owns my flat may not give two stuffs who’s in charge at Town Hall. Compelling people to vote in an election they give even fewer fucks about will do nothing more than boost the number of invalid/donkey votes. While the changes to the CoS Act don’t affect other local government areas, Mr Toole has signalled his support to roll out the changes to other ‘key cities and economic areas’ such as Parramatta and Newcastle (because having a developer as Lord Mayor worked so well…).

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I started writing this piece a few days’ ago (c’mon, you don’t think I could read this much draft legislation before midday on a Saturday), only to be beaten to the punch by Secco, who has written a #getClover feelpiece for The Saturday Paper. This, I hope, delves deeper into the nature of the proposed changes and the long-term impact on the residents of the City of Sydney, because it is much more than an attack on the political survival of one person as per the current narrative. The Tea Party-lite sloganeering adopted by Toole, Borsak et al is a reminder that money will equal speech, regardless of how sick to the stomach NSW is of those who sought, and succeeded to steal elections. Set aside political affiliations, apathy, personality-based views: malapportionment of votes; an electoral roll kept by a council employee; more red tape caused by the multi-layered policing of the roll and no clear indication of which corporation will wield the business vote where more than one exists on a rateable property make the amendments unworkable. Let MPs know, and don’t forget it in March 2015.

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