New South Wales council elections are due in September 2020, which means that local councils right now are having to decide who they will contract to run their election.
This may seem strange to people not familiar with NSW council elections. In most states, all council elections are run by the state electoral commission. Yet in New South Wales, local councils can choose to either use the NSW Electoral Commission (NSWEC) or a private contractor.
In this post I will run through some of the history of this quirk of NSW electoral administration, why I think it’s such a bad idea, and what looks set to happen soon.
The NSW Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal (IPART) is due to hand down a final report, as early as today, in an inquiry into what price should be set by the NSWEC for conducting local government elections.
The IPART is considering a pricing structure which would increase the average cost by 62% compared to the last round of elections in 2016 and 2017. The IPART has justified this proposal in part because of a concern that private election providers have not been able to compete with the NSWEC under the current pricing structure.
But do we really want private election providers to be “competitive” with the NSWEC? Why would that be a good thing?
The ability of councils to choose who would run their election was implemented by the O’Farrell government in 2011, and first applied to the 2012 council election. It was driven by concern from local councils about how much the NSWEC’s costs had gone up at the 2008 election.
14 out of 150 councils opted out of the NSWEC service at the 2012 election. Five out of 81 councils did the same in 2016, and one out of 46 did so in 2017. So the rate of councils privatising their elections dropped from 9.3% in 2012 to 4.7% in 2016/17.
I’ve been on the record opposed to private provision of elections for a long time. The level of service provided for ratepayers, voters, media and observers is far lower when a local council uses a private provider.
In the past, private providers have been inconsistent about how they apply election rules, much less transparent about important information about the election, and publish election results in a much less accessible format.
There were also concerns about the conflicts of interest when local councils decided to run their own elections, which led to amendments to legislation this year by David Shoebridge requiring a local council to employ an outside provider rather than using their own general manager as returning officer (which is a small thing, but a good thing).
There are deeper problems with the concept that we would be going to private companies to run elections. These companies have far less accountability for their actions than a public commission with a track record and oversight. Running efficient and competent elections isn’t easy, and treating each individual council election as a separate election is a recipe for inefficiency and incompetence.
In my experience in the 2012 council election, when a single company was hired to run a number of Hunter-region elections, returning officers from the same company gave completely contradictory advice about what would be required for a how-to-vote to be registered, with no ability to appeal to a higher authority to make a final judgement. In contrast, while local NSWEC returning officers may sometimes make strange decisions, there was always the ability to appeal to the state office to ensure consistency.
I also want to push back on the IPART’s argument that prices need to increase to ensure that private companies are “competitive”. The goal of local election administration should be running the elections well. If the NSWEC can do this better (which is most definitely true) and more cheaply, that should be reflected in the costs. Private companies don’t have a right to business running public elections which should be the domain of the Electoral Commission.
The IPART report would also have the effect of reducing the state government’s subsidy of local government elections, when they should instead be increasing their contribution. Local council budgets are already massively under strain with limits on rate rises and increasing costs. State government takes responsibility for improving council governance in many ways, through codes of conduct, councillor training and occasionally sacking poorly-performing councils. Surely a well-run electoral process is a core part of well-run local government?
Local councils have until October 1 to decide whether they will use the NSWEC, or will instead contract out to another election provider.
I have start putting together a list of each council and their decision, but so far I only know of nine councils out of 127. Seven have decided to use the NSWEC, while Lane Cove has decided to go elsewhere and Parramatta is undecided. You can see my list here.
If you happen to know how your local council has decided (or want to take the time to look through your council’s minutes) I would love to know the answer. While you’re at it, if your council has wards, can you find out if the ward boundaries are changing before the next election?
You might also want to consider emailing or calling your councillors asking them what they are planning to do, and urging them to be sensible and contract the Electoral Commission.