So the NSW local government election is scheduled to be held on September 4, which is less than seven weeks away.
Greater Sydney is still under lockdown, with case numbers close to their highest level. We may be at the peak, or there may be more time for the cases to grow, but the lockdown doesn’t look set to finish in the next few weeks. Perhaps we’ll be out of lockdown by early September, but there is no guarantee. It’s also worth noting that pre-poll voting is due to start two weeks before election day, which means we are less than five weeks from the start of voting.
The NSW government would have the option to postpone the elections, which were originally scheduled for September 2020, but I have heard nothing to suggest they will be doing this, and it’s getting a bit late.
If the elections are not postponed, then candidates, parties and other campaigners need to grapple with the question of what is a safe way to campaign to voters, and the government needs to give clear advice about what safe activities are explicitly made legal, to ensure that the elections can be run fairly, if in a restricted manner.
This issue came up in September last year, when the Victorian local government elections started to ramp up in the final weeks of their long lockdown. At the time of my first post on the topic, it was illegal for volunteers to walk the streets letterboxing, or to distribute signs for supporters to put up.
Obviously it won’t be possible to run street stalls or doorknocking during a lockdown. It may not even be possible to hand out how-to-votes on polling booths (which wasn’t an issue during the mail-only Victorian election, but came up in March 2020 when polling booths were used for the Queensland local government elections but without any volunteers handing out material at the booth gate). But it should be possible to safely letterbox, or to put up signs on your house (which requires someone to be able to drive around and drop them off).
At the time of that post, it was illegal for a volunteer to distribute leaflets, but it was legal to employ someone to do it for pay, which significantly tilted the playing field in favour of candidates with money over candidates with popular support.
The next day, the Victorian government did announce some rules for safe campaigning in response to the outcry. These rules allowed for campaign volunteers to distribute leaflets and posters to other volunteers, and for those volunteers to put up the posters at their own home, or to distribute the leaflets in letterboxes, as long as it fell within the 2-hour exercise limit at the time.
I don’t see why the same couldn’t be done in New South Wales today.
Right now, candidates and parties are left guessing about what the rules will allow, and that’s not a good place to be.
Of course, it is also possible to do campaigns online but that is a severe restriction on the options for local campaigns that don’t have the money for big Facebook ad campaigns or to put together flashy websites.
Personally, I think the best option would be to push back the elections to later in the year, but if the election is to take place on schedule the NSW government needs to act now to clarify what practices are, or are not allowed, and need to be prompt about freeing up more activities if the threat subsides.