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Brisbane – draft ward boundaries released

BCCredistThe Electoral Commission of Queensland on Friday released its draft boundaries for the 26 wards covering the City of Brisbane – Australia’s biggest local council.

The process is similar to processes followed for state, territory and federal electoral redistributions, a number of which are currently taking place. In December, I posted about the prospects for the redistribution.

Despite the twelve northern wards being substantially larger than the fourteen wards south of the Brisbane river, the ECQ has chosen to not draw a ward crossing the river, thus leaving the north with twelve wards, all slightly larger than the fourteen on the south side.

In this blog post, I will describe what changes have taken place, and what they mean for the electoral landscape of Brisbane. I’ve also included an interactive map of the new boundaries.

You can now download the draft boundary map here. In the next few months I will also prepare updated maps for all the other councils in Queensland undergoing ward redistributions, as well as those in three other states.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Local government mergers – in WA and New Zealand

While New South Wales is currently undergoing a process of considering metropolitan council amalgamations, Western Australia has recently reached the unsuccessful conclusion of a similar process – which ended with a number of overwhelming ‘no’ votes in local referendums and an abandonment of the process in February 2015. New Zealand, which already has much larger councils than in most of Australia, is also currently considering a number of council mergers.

Read the rest of this entry »

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NSW government pushing for council mergers

Local councils across Sydney are currently going through a process of making submissions to the state government’s ‘Fit For The Future’ program, which is aimed at judging councils on a bunch of criteria, seemingly with the goal of consolidating the number of local councils, producing a smaller number of more populous councils.

In practice, the criteria are largely arbitrary, based on some vague concept of “big is better”, and attitudes of local councils towards amalgamation seem based on base politics, with various councils effectively promoting hostile takeovers of their neighbours in ways that will help their political party solidify its hold.

Through the course of this month, each council in the Sydney region is making a submission to the Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal (IPART) about how their council meets the criteria set by the NSW government as to whether they are ‘fit for the future’. This process has involved many councils undertaking consultation, and coming to decisions about their recommendations, which have focused on whether councils support amalgamating with their neighbours.

The criteria cover the capability of the council, along with its efficiency, financial sustainability and management of infrastructure. The other criteria, ‘scale’, seems to be particularly arbitrary – the government has set a presumption that councils should have a substantially larger population than they have now, which necessitates significant amalgamations regardless of how a council performs on the other criteria. No number has been set for this criteria, with various figures suggesting different figures throughout the process.

While the process is requiring councils to produce public submissions, there is no such requirement for the state government to be transparent in their decisions – the IPART decisions will remain secret, and we won’t know whether any decisions by the state government to recommend amalgamations was made based on an IPART recommendation, or despite IPART’s recommendations.

There are undoubtedly some parts of Sydney which could do with local council amalgamations (hello, Burwood and Hunters Hill), but it is very unclear how much Sydney councils would be improved through amalgamations. While there may be some efficiencies, these in part could come from reductions in duplicated services, which may not be appreciated by their residents, and there will be a substantial cost to amalgamate different councils. Different councils provide different levels of service, and it remains unclear whether amalgamated councils would raise all parts of the council area to the highest standard, or lower services to the minimum.

Many councils are already benefiting from efficiencies created by cooperation between councils, sharing procurement and other parts of a council’s work, through the existence of regional organisations.

Looking at the list of councils who have expressed an openness to amalgamation, it has little to do with which councils are in most need of amalgamation, but more to do with politics – larger councils attempting to take over their smaller neighbours, and councils finding ways to design new boundaries that benefit the politically-dominant faction. In some cases, councils which are not considered to be in any need of merger have launched attempts to take over their neighbours.

In most of these cases, these councils are run by Liberals or Liberal-aligned independents.

Warringah Council, which is already well above the average population, has launched a bid to merge with its neighbours in Manly and Pittwater, neither of which support amalgamation.

In the north-west, The Hills, another large conservative council, is seeking to take over Hawkesbury Shire, which has about one third of the population but covers a large swathe of north-western Sydney. Hawkesbury, despite its small population, was not targeted for amalgamation because it covers such a large area. Hornsby Shire has also proposed a merger with Ku-ring-gai, who have refused the overtures.

In the inner west, most councils have opposed amalgamation, but in some cases councils have adopted ‘back-up options’. Leichhardt Council has proposed an amalgamation with Canada Bay and Ashfield councils, which would produce a strange Y-shaped area, but would conveniently weaken the Greens, who topped the poll in Leichhardt in 2012.

Further out in the inner west, Auburn and Burwood councils both agreed to a merger with Canada Bay council, but Canada Bay rejected the proposal. The three-council merger proposal was already strange, as it would leave Strathfield council alone (one of the smallest with a population of 37,000) surrounded by a new council on three sides which would include a population of over 190,000. It’s even more ridiculous without Canada Bay, because Burwood and Auburn do not share a boundary. Auburn intends to still push for the merger despite Canada Bay’s objections.

While Auburn is eager to merge with councils to its east, it has been resistant to joining an enlarged City of Parramatta with Holroyd (which is also anti-amalgamation) and Parramatta, which is generally supportive. One wonders whether this is linked to the political make-up of the councils, and where the centre of gravity would lie in an Auburn-Burwood-Canada Bay council compared to a City of Greater Parramatta.

The most ridiculous case comes in the eastern suburbs of Sydney. The original proposal from the independent panel was to merge the councils of Botany Bay, Randwick, Waverley and Woollahra into the City of Sydney, so that Sydney would cover the entire eastern peninsula. The other four councils all oppose this option, but their tactics to prevent it have varied.

Waverley and Randwick councils, which both have substantial numbers of Labor and Greens councillors but are currently dominated by conservatives, have both supported mergers with Woollahra and Botany Bay councils respectively, and possibly as a merger of all four councils. In Randwick, the Greens have come on board with the Liberal plans to launch a hostile takeover of Botany Bay council, which is dominated by Labor and strongly opposed to a merger.

Woollahra council, which is also dominated by the Liberal Party, also rejects amalgamation – unlike its neighbours to the south, the Liberal Party has a solid hold on Woollahra which is unlikely to change. It seems like those ‘marginal Liberal’ councils may see amalgamation as a way to solidify their hold on the east.

Of course, we have no idea how seriously these local council positions will be taken. Apart from Randwick and Waverley, no two other neighbouring councils support merging with each other. So any mergers will require the overriding of councils, at which point it seems far more rational to draw new boundaries where the government sees the most need, rather than drawing them according to the short-term political interests of sitting councillors.

We also don’t know what other reforms could come along – the independent review panel also recommended direct election of mayors, and possibly other structural reforms. I would personally like to see larger councils (including those large councils that already exist) given a larger number of councils than the current limit of 15 – but the trend seems to be in the other direction, treating councils as ‘boards of directors’ which are easier to manage with less representation.

While local government in New South Wales isn’t perfect, triggering a frenzy of amalgamation pushes across Sydney won’t do much to improve it – so much of the problems local councils have relate to the costs that have been imposed on them by other levels of government, and the ways in which they are restricted in finding funds to cover their work. Consolidating local councils into larger units won’t do much at all to fix that fundamental problem, but that’s a story for another day.

The deadline for local council submissions is next Tuesday, 30 June, so we may well see solid proposals for council amalgamations, likely forced, later this year, in time for council elections in 2016.

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Why can’t Greater Sydney be run as a democracy?

There was a story yesterday about plans by the NSW government to form a “Greater Sydney Commission”, which would take charge of planning for development across Sydney, and seemingly also have some kind of responsibility for infrastructure and transport.

Apparently the Commission was announced in 2014, although I missed it at the time. It appears to be linked to the government’s ongoing plans for local government reform (which I will cover later this week), with the Commission effectively including both council and state government representatives and would take control of setting housing targets and a variety of other Sydney-wide planning concerns.

The Sun-Herald described the Commission as ‘London-style’, but there’s a critical difference. In London, where there is a city-wide Greater London Authority alongside local borough councils, the Authority is a democratic organisation, run by a directly-elected Mayor and a 25-member Assembly, elected using proportional representation.

Instead, the proposed Commission would appear to have twelve members. The senior public servants covering roads, transport and planning for the NSW government would be represented, alongside three “independent members” (who knows what that means – just NSW government appointments?) as well as six representatives of local councils. It appears that six regional organisation of councils will each have a representative on the Commission.

So this body that would be taking over responsibilities from the democratically-elected state government, and from democratic local governments, would always be at least two steps removed from the will of the voters – voters elect councillors, who elect regional representatives, who elect Commissioners, while state government representatives are public servants appointed by the relevant ministers.

I can see a lot of value in a body that would look at planning issues for the whole of Sydney, in a way that is hard for either the state government or small local governments. But there’s no reason this can’t be democratically run.

There are two places in Australia where a democratically-elected government effectively covers an entire city, but no more – the City of Brisbane, which covers a large part of the Brisbane urban area, and the Australian Capital Territory, in which nearly all of the population lives in Canberra. In both cases we have ‘big city government’ that prioritises the city as a whole, rather than small parts of the city, or a bigger area of which the city is one part.

There’s a tendency amongst those pushing for local government reforms to push for any mechanism which takes the decision a step away from the voters: creating panels of mayors (thus excluding the vast majority of local representatives), or creating apolitical commissions. It’s almost like democracy is a necessary evil, and where possible it should be pushed into the corner.

There are real political issues to be debated across Sydney – which areas should receive the brunt of the new housing needed for current and future population growth, and how much investment should go into public transport or roads. But they should be debated in democratic forums.

I don’t see a good reason why such a body couldn’t be democratically elected. It could be elected at the same time as the next local government elections in September 2016. You could elect it using the same voting system, with a number of large ‘wards’ or electorates covering a number of local government areas.

Sure, such an elected Greater Sydney Assembly would be likely dominated by members of the political parties, but that’s democracy, and such an election would have different dynamics to state and council elections, and would focus attention on the needs of Sydney as a city, in a way that doesn’t happen in NSW state elections.

It appears this Commission will have a lot of power over planning Sydney’s future – and that power should go to a body that represents the people of Sydney. If things work out well, such a body could then go on to take on other responsibilities currently sitting with state or local government.

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NT redistribution – draft boundary map finished

Following up on Wednesday’s post about the Northern Territory redistribution, I’ve now completed my Google Earth map of the electoral boundaries.

You can download the map here, and it’s embedded below (sorry no stats, just the boundaries).

As explained last week, the Alice Springs area effectively lost a seat to the Darwin area.

Overall, this redistribution has been more dramatic than the last one, with big shifts in the Darwin, Palmerston and Alice Springs areas.

Prior to the redistribution, the Alice Springs area included three seats entirely contained in the town, but the seat of Araluen has been abolished, and the seat of Stuart has shifted south to take in parts of Alice Springs and taking on a new name of Battarbee.

In the top end, Nhulunbuy (renamed Milirrpum) has expanded to take in Groote Eylandt from Arnhem, which then shifts east to take in territory from Arafura. The seats of Goyder and Daly both shifted south, following the trend caused by the abolition of Araluen.

A majority of seats in the Northern Territory are included in the two northern urban areas of Darwin and Palmerston, and traditionally there has always been one seat straddling Darwin and Palmerston. That seat is currently Fong Lim, but Fong Lim has retracted into the Darwin area, with the creation of a new seat called Spillett covering parts of Palmerston, and the fringe areas between Palmerston and Darwin.

Antony Green has done his usual estimates of the partisan impact of the changes.


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Draft boundaries released for NT redistribution

Amongst many other redistributions, the Northern Territory is redrawing the boundaries of the 25 electorates for the territory’s Legislative Assembly.

The redistribution map was released yesterday. I’m working on my map of the new electorates, and should have it finished by Monday.

In short, the town of Alice Springs has lost one of its three seats to the Darwin area, with a new seat created in the Palmerston area on the fringe of Darwin.

Antony Green has produced a good summary of the boundary change proposal.

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Federal redistribution update

The Australian Electoral Commission is currently undertaking federal redistributions in New South Wales (which is losing one seat), Western Australia (which is gaining one seat) and the ACT (which should see minor changes on the border between the two seats.

Since I last wrote about these redistributions, we have seen two rounds of submissions in New South Wales and Western Australia, with a variety of individuals and groups, including political parties, putting in ‘suggestions’ and then a second opportunity for individuals and groups to make ‘comments on suggestions’.

I’ll only briefly cover the ACT, where the process is at a slightly earlier stage. With only two divisions, and with the southern division of Canberra under quota and the northern division of Fraser over quota, you would expect a few suburbs at the southern edge of northern Canberra to be transferred, but the process is relatively simple. In fact, no political party bothered to put in any suggestions.

In the case of Western Australia, I’ll keep my summary simple, and refer to WA resident William Bowe’s summary at Poll Bludger.

In short, both major parties agree on creating a new division out of parts of Hasluck in south-eastern Perth. Labor recommends calling the division ‘Tonkin’, and the Liberal Party recommends ‘Court’, both using the names of deceased former WA premiers who belonged to those respective parties. The WA Greens  proposes naming the sixteenth division ‘Vallentine’ after former senator Jo Vallentine, who was elected for the Nuclear Disarmament Party, became an independent then helped form the WA Greens. Vallentine would be a strong candidate for a seat name, except for the fact that AEC guidelines recommend that divisions be named after deceased persons, and Vallentine is very much alive. These guidelines can be ignored, so the option is still a possibility.

I wanted to focus most of my writing on New South Wales, the largest state with the most complex electoral boundaries. I’ve waited until after the second round of submissions were released last week. In this post, I’ll run through some interesting points in the map where the parties have disagreed on their approach.

This blog post is quite lengthy, and runs through five key parts of the state, and what each of the parties has proposed. I will return to these three redistributions (along with the state redistribution in Western Australia and the Brisbane City Council ward redistribution) when the draft boundaries are released.

Read the rest of this entry »

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NSW Nationals want smaller seats – how?

Last month, Nationals MLC Ben Franklin announced that he would seek a parliamentary inquiry into the size of the western NSW electorates of Barwon and Murray, which cover a majority of the New South Wales land mass. Today, according to a tweet from the party’s account, the NSW Nationals passed a motion calling for smaller electorates in regional NSW.

It’s true that these electorates are huge, and are a challenge to represent, but this simply reflects the low populations living in these areas. While there are some variations in electoral boundaries which could make Barwon at the least slightly smaller, any legislative changes would likely require increasing the population contained within seats in Sydney and along the coast, unless the Nationals are considering a proposal to increase the size of the Legislative Assembly.

The proposal also ignores the fact that the Nationals actually benefit from our electoral system. In 2015, the Nationals polled about the same as the Greens, but won 17 seats to the Greens’ 3, due to their vote being concentrated in particular parts of the state.

Franklin ignores all the other conditions that can make it harder to represent an electorate, such as having a large number of residents who don’t speak English, many residents with problems needing support from their local MP, such as public housing issues. It’s a lot easier to measure the landmass a seat covers, but it doesn’t mean it is the only problem faced by MPs in representing their electorate. Yet we don’t discuss weighting electoral power based on any other type of disadvantage – it’s one person, one vote.

There is a long and ugly history in Australia of electoral laws being used to increase the voting power of rural voters at the expense of urban voters – in effect MPs represented land, not just people. In New South Wales at a state level, and in most other jurisdictions, different quotas were set in rural and urban areas, meaning that there were much smaller numbers of voters in a rural seat than in an urban seat. Read the rest of this entry »

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Ireland votes yes for marriage equality – results map

Ireland voted on Friday in a referendum on allowing same-sex marriage, and it passed overwhelmingly.

Since I have previously produced a Google map of Ireland’s parliamentary constituencies (download it here), I thought I would put together a quick map showing the shape of the vote by constituency.

The ‘no’ case won in only one constituency: Roscommon-South Leitrim.

The ‘yes’ case did particularly well in Dublin, winning over 70% in nine out of twelve constituencies. The worst ‘yes’ vote in Dublin was 66.4% in Dublin North-East.

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Senate reform – questions that need answering

Two weeks ago I wrote a piece for the Guardian putting the case for reform to the system of Senate group voting tickets, in response to a number of pieces arguing against reform on the basis of who is for the reform, or who supposedly will be favoured.

Today I want to write about a few points I didn’t get to cover in my post, and respond to stories about politicians (primarily in Labor and the Greens) expressing hesitation about supporting the reform seemingly due to concerns about the partisan impact on their parties, and the proposal of a (very bad) idea to keep group voting tickets but impose a minimum vote threshold of 4% for any candidate to be elected.

Antony Green has previously conducted an analysis of how the proposed system of above-the-line preferencing and optional preferential voting would likely change the make-up of the Senate, assuming no major change in voter behaviour. His predictions would have seen Labor and Coalition each hold two additional seats in the current Senate. The Greens would hold one less seat, with a number of other crossbenchers missing out. Nick Xenophon would have likely been joined by his #2 candidate under the proposed system.

It seems some people in Labor and the Greens seem to think that their respective party could be disadvantaged by these reforms. The problem with making predictions about how the system would work (as acknowledged by Antony Green) is that a change in system will change the behaviour of parties, candidates and voters. The changed system would likely result in fewer parties running, and over time this could see different voting blocks developing. A smaller ballot paper would likely have hurt the Liberal Democratic Party, who won in NSW on the back of substantial confusion over their name.

While it looks like the Coalition would have been the chief beneficiary of no group voting tickets in 2013, at other times the reforms would have more likely benefited Labor. This has been explained by Kevin Bonham.

Others have opposed these reforms because they have been pleased with the impact of Ricky Muir and others on the Senate crossbench. Like with any lottery, it’s possible for it to produce a positive result, but that doesn’t mean it is fair or that it can be predicted to produce another result you like in the future.

Ultimately, you need to make your judgement about Senate reform on its impact on the system as a whole, and whether it is fair, not whether it advantages your side, or politicians that you like. That may seem naive, but in the medium term it’s the only sensible approach to electoral reform.

We have seen the impact of short-term thinking in New South Wales and Queensland, where past Labor governments introduced optional preferential voting, in part to benefit from division between Liberal and National candidates (and Queensland Labor went further in benefiting from vote-splitting between the Coalition and One Nation in 1998, encouraging voters to ‘Just Vote 1′).

Since then, the Liberal and National parties have merged in Queensland and gotten better at avoiding three-cornered-contests in other states, and One Nation has disappeared, while the Greens now take a much larger part of the left vote, and those same ‘Just Vote 1′ messages first used by Peter Beattie were used by Campbell Newman for the opposite effect earlier this year.

In addition to us not being able to make any certain or long-term predictions about the partisan impact of a reform, there are deeper issues with the current Senate system, beyond which candidates might win.

The group voting ticket system, with full preferences and almost-complete control of those preferences by parties, tends to produce results where the exact order of elimination of candidates is critical to the result, and small changes in the order can produce dramatically different results. We saw this in Western Australia in 2013, when a gap of 14 votes (or was it 12 votes?) changing who won two Senate seats.

This problem hasn’t gone away, and if we continue down the current trend of increasing numbers of parties and candidates, it will continue to get worse. We may well see another very close contest at the next election, resulting in another recount and more pressure on the AEC to go above and beyond its normal responsibilities.

So this isn’t just about who wins and who loses, this is about having a democratic process which is understood, respected, and not seen as producing arbitrary results which have little to no relationship to the votes cast.

Finally, a number of media outlets have reported that some in the Greens including new leader Richard Di Natale are open to an alternative reform, which would keep the current system but exclude from election any candidate from a party that polled less than 4%.

This is a terrible idea, and would be worthy of the criticism that minor parties have directed at the reform process so far. It would be a bald-faced case of the major parties using their position to entrench their power at the expense of small parties, and would not fix the problem.

Preferences are not only abused by small parties – they can be abused by larger parties. In 1984, the major parties effectively used the new group voting ticket system to starve Peter Garrett (then of the Nuclear Disarmament Party) of preferences, and have often directed preferences away from the Greens.

A threshold system would be particularly bad for the Greens, who would still be vulnerable to losing Labor preferences.

Using thresholds would also completely fail to deal with the lack of transparency in the current system, and allow backroom deals to continue to be made, with results that are very hard to predict.

While the above-the-line voting system is unlikely to elect anyone with less than 4% of the vote, it keeps the option open, as down the track parties get better at encouraging their voters to mark preferences. It’s also completely out of keeping with the Australian system to impose an arbitrary threshold, where 4.1% makes you eligible to win and 3.9% means you can’t win.