Councils to be restored in the Illawarra

Voters in the UK are currently voting in a referendum on electoral reform, and the results should come in tomorrow morning. Closer to home, some electoral reform is taking place in two councils in the Illawarra area south of Sydney.

Wollongong City Council and Shellharbour City Council were both sacked in 2008 after allegations of corruption on the councils, and have been run by unelected administrators since then. Both of those councils previously were elected using a system of “winner takes all” preferential voting. Each council had six wards of two councillors each, along with a directly elected mayor. Each ward used a system that meant that the group winning a majority of votes after preferences would almost certainly gain both seats.

In contrast, most councils in NSW use some system of proportional representation, as is mandated for all wards electing at least three councils. Following the sacking of Wollongong and Shellharbour, the only councils still using the old system were Botany and Ku-ring-gai in Sydney and a number of small rural councils. There was an attempt to impose the system on a newly-created New England Regional Council last year, but the merger was scrapped and the electoral plan also went on the scrap-heap.

The new Coalition government has decided that the Illawarra councils will move away from the majority-rule system to the proportional system used in most NSW councils.

Firstly, they have decided that the two councils will face election this September, a year before all other councils in New South Wales are up for election. Secondly, they are making changes to councillor numbers and ward systems in both councils.

In Wollongong, the state government has decided that they will continue to have a directly-elected mayor and twelve more councillors, but they will be elected through three wards, each ward electing four councillors. This will mean that, rather than the majority winning all seats in each ward, a councillor will need to achieve a 20% quota to win a seat in any ward. This reflects many other councils in urban NSW, with 3-member or 4-member wards being the most common model.

In Shellharbour, the number of councillors will be cut to seven, with the mayor to be elected from amongst the councillors. No wards will be using, allowing candidates to win election with 12.5% of the vote in the council area. This is an extremely low number of councillors for a reasonably large council. Most urban councils in the Sydney, Hunter and Illawarra regions have between nine and fifteen councillors each. Kiama Council, immediately to the south of Shellharbour, has less than one third of Shellharbour’s population, but has nine councillors. The only councils in Sydney with less than nine councillors are Burwood (approximately 33,000 residents), Strathfield (approximately 35,000) and Hunter’s Hill (approximately 15,000). They each have seven councillors. Shellharbour, in contrast, has approximately 67,000 residents.

The Coalition government has made the argument that “Fewer councillors has shown that council can effectively focus on the bigger picture and seek whole of council outcomes”, but I don’t really see any evidence for that argument. Considering that councillors are paid very little money for their role, and considering the large size of Shellharbour Council, it seems like halving the size of their council brings little financial benefits while substantially reducing the link between the community and their representatives.

I have previously argued that councils in Sydney should be designed so that there are more councillors on each council, not less, and that bigger councils have more councillors. While the government’s decision makes these councils’ electoral systems far more democratic, the unnecessary reduction in councillor numbers in Shellharbour reduces democracy.

A note on my local government maps: New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland will all be holding local government elections in 2012. The ward maps I have on my maps page are for the 2008 council elections in those three states. At some point when I have time I will go through and identify which councils have redistributed their ward boundaries and produce new maps. Obviously I will have to produce a map of the new Wollongong City Council wards once they have been announced, which will be added to the 2012 ward map for New South Wales when it is produced. Sorry Western Australia and South Australia, I don’t think I’ll have time to do yours.