Earlier this week, I wrote a blog post about the Independent Local Government Electoral Review Panel in Victoria, chaired by former federal Liberal MP Petro Georgiou. In particular I focused on recommendations to modify the local government franchise, by extending the right to vote to all permanent residents (ie. non-citizens) living in the local government area, removing the second vote for businesses in the City of Melbourne, and generally simplifying and clarifying the process for non-residents to gain the right to vote in all council elections.
The review’s reports, however, covered much more than the franchise, so I thought I would return to the topic and summarise some of the most interesting recommendations, below the fold.
There are two reports – stage 1 and stage 2. I have listed the recommendation number for those recommendations I have discussed.
Stage 1 report
Caps on donations (rec. 23)
The panel recommends a cap on donations from any individual or organisation to any individual candidate to $1000. In the City of Melbourne, which is the only place where candidates run as tickets or groups, the cap would be set at $1000 multiplied by the number of candidates in the group. As far as I can tell, there are currently no caps on donations in Victorian elections.
Candidate information (rec. 26)
At the moment, a large majority of Victorian council elections are conducted as postal-voting-only, with a minority of councils still conducting elections as “attendance voting” – ie. via polling booths like with state and federal elections. As part of postal voting elections, candidate information (effectively a how-to-vote card) for every candidate is mailed out to all voters along with their ballot paper. The panel is recommending this process be ended, although it is suggested that this information could be hosted on an official website.
Postal voting (rec. 31-32)
Local councils in Victoria can choose between attendance voting and postal voting for their elections. In 2012, sixty-nine councils conducted postal voting elections, eight councils conducted attendance voting elections, and one council’s election was uncontested.
After examining the pros and cons of both models, the review recommends that postal voting be made the method of all council elections in Victoria. This would bring Victoria into line with Western Australia, South Australia and Tasmania, where all elections are currently undertaken using postal voting. New South Wales is the only state where all council elections are conducted using attendance voting, while Queensland and the Northern Territory (like Victoria) use a mixture of the two methods.
As part of these changes, the review also recommends providing more time for ballots to be posted in. In federal and state elections, voters have until the Friday before polling day to send in their postal ballot. In Victorian postal voting council elections, the votes must arrive by that Friday, and votes are counted on the Saturday (while polling booths are open in other councils), meaning that voters have less time to get their ballots in.
VEC to conduct all council elections (rec. 33)
At the moment, Victorian councils can choose to run their own council election, or contract out the election to either the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) or the Victorian Electoral Commission (VEC). Since the AEC withdrew from conducting Victorian council elections in 2001, the VEC has conducted all Victorian council elections. The review believes it is far superior to have the VEC run the election, rather than a private company or the council itself, so is recommending that the VEC is given statutory authority to run all council elections in the future. This is interesting in the context of New South Wales, where the NSWEC ran all council elections up until the 2008 election. In 2012, a number of NSW councils either ran their own elections or outsourced the election to a private company, after the Parliament gave them the authority to make such a decision.
Stage 2 report
The stage 2 report makes a number of suggestions for changes to how decisions are made about how many councillors will sit on each council, and the ward structure of that council.
At the moment, Victorian councils can include up to twelve councillors. This compares to other states which allow up to sixteen councillors per council (NSW allows up to fifteen).
In addition, councils can have a number of different ward structures. The council can be undivided (no wards), or divided into wards. If the council is divided, those wards can be single-member wards, or multi-member wards using proportional representation. At the moment, a council can have a different number of councillors in different wards. This seems quite unusual coming from New South Wales, where all wards of the same council must have the same number of councillors.
The Victorian Electoral Commission conducts regular reviews to decide on the number of councillors and the ward structure of each council, and makes decisions based on a variety of factors.
The review has recommended that, from now on, all wards of the same council must elect the same number of councillors. The review pointed out that, even if the number of voters is in proportion (eg. a ward with two councillors is half the size of a ward with four councillors), the number of votes needed to win varies. It’s also true that the overall percentage of the vote needed in each ward varies. The review does suggest that three-member wards are the ideal structure, without recommending that as a standard rule.
In addition, they have recommended that the number of councillors on each council be set according to a clear formula based on the population of the area, with the maximum increased from twelve to fifteen. Councils would have six, nine, twelve or fifteen councillors, depending on the council, with councils with more than 130,000 voters getting fifteen councillors. This recommendation would likely lend itself to the creation of more three-member wards, and would remove the need to create mismatched wards. At the moment, the formula allocates eleven seats to many councils. Unless you have no wards, or you have single-member wards, it is not possible to create evenly-sized wards in an eleven-member council as eleven is a prime number.
The review includes an interesting history of Victoria’s ward structures. Prior to 1989, councils were not elected by proportional representation, and councils included up to 21 councillors. Council wards needed to include a multiple of three councillors per ward, and one third of the council would be elected each year.
The local council amalgamations in the 1990s saw the creation of single-member wards for the first time, and from 1998 to 2003 a majority of councils were elected by single-member wards only. The practice of mixing single-member and multi-member wards also became more common.
In the 2000s, electoral reviews drastically reduced the number of councils elected entirely from single-member wards (now at 14% of councils) while increasing the number of councils that are undivided or have uniform multi-member wards. The practice of electing a council using multi-member wards of different sizes has also become more common.
For those interested in the history of how councils are elected, the report is worth a read.