I have been paying a lot of attention to local councils in New South Wales over the past year, with a particular focus on the more populous councils. As part of my analysis, I decided to draw a line under those councils with a population of over 100,000 people. When I prepared my guides for the 2016 and 2017 council elections, there were 23 councils meeting this criteria. But now there are 25, with Camden and Shoalhaven councils crossing the line since the last round of elections.
Sydney is not growing exponentially faster than other parts of the country, but it is still growing quickly, and that growth is not distributed evenly. For this post I wanted to use a rich source of data to analyse where that growth is most focused, which has implications for the way politics works in local councils.
Every council in New South Wales theoretically uses the same voting system, but that voting system works quite differently depending on the party system. I’m going to return to this topic in future podcasts, but larger urban councils tend to have elections dominated by parties: sometimes the same parties that exist at a state or federal level, but sometimes by parties formed at a local level.
And as population growth is focused on some parts of Sydney, it’s likely their local council politics will change. Large numbers of new residents won’t necessarily vote the same as others, and the increased scale will make it more attractive for parties to contest, and for local candidates to come together under collective banners.
The dataset I’m using is from the New South Wales Electoral Commission. They release numbers of enrolled voters for each local council area (indeed, for each ward and for each Statistical Area 1) roughly once a month, and have been doing so since mid-2007.
Now this is not the same as an estimate of population. Non-citizens, people under 18, and some others who aren’t enrolled to vote are not counted in enrolment measures. But population data doesn’t get updated that often. We largely rely on a census once every five years to come up with the most accurate estimate, and then estimates are produced every year or so in between censuses, and those estimates don’t usually cover super-localised areas.
If you’ve paid close attention to vaccination rate data recently you’ll notice some odd trends that can be explained by the fact that rates are calculated based on population as of 2019, and a bit has gone on since then. So enrolment data is useful as a measure of how populations have changed, particularly at a hyper-local level.
This first map shows how much enrolment has changed in each Greater Sydney local council area since 2017.
I chose 2017 because that was when the process of local council amalgamations were concluded. While most of the amalgamations were simple mergers (and thus you can just combine the pre-amalgamation totals), there are four councils in mid-north-western Sydney which had more complicated changes: Parramatta, Cumberland, the Hills and Hornsby.
Most councils have experienced enrolment growth, with most concentrated in western Sydney. Enrolment increased by over 5% in Campbelltown, Liverpool, Penrith and Blacktown, as well as further east in Ryde, Lane Cove and Sydney. The Hills increased by over 10%, but Camden is far out in front, increasing enrolment by 28.8%.
The change is even more dramatic if you go back as far as 2007:
The Camden Council area had about 33,000 enrolled voters in 2007, but now has almost 75,000, an increase of 125%. The next biggest increase was in the City of Sydney (44%), followed by Liverpool (39%) and Blacktown (38%). I suspect the Hills Shire would be in a similar position if we had data going back that far.
Apart from the City of Sydney, those other councils are all those that have large areas that were still mostly rural two decades ago, but have since become very quickly populated. Blacktown and the Hills cover most of the North West Growth Area, while Camden and (to a lesser extent) Liverpool cover the South West Growth Area.
Camden is in a unique position, but I would argue this is partly an artefact of the drawing of local government boundaries. The City of Blacktown covers a larger area in the north-west, while the equivalent in the south-west is split between Camden, Campbelltown and arguably part of Liverpool. So the percentage growth in Blacktown looks smaller because it’s off a larger base.
I’m preparing two other blog posts about Camden and Blacktown which will dive down to the local level and look at where the population growth has been. Spoiler alert: it has been very concentrated in the parts of the councils that were mostly depopulated in 2007, and this has made it a lot harder to draw equal-sized wards over the last 14 years.
Finally, this chart shows every council in Greater Sydney, showing how enrolment numbers have changed over the last 14 years (or 4 years for those councils with changed boundaries). I’ve highlighted Camden in red.
Camden’s enrolment numbers were not much more than Wollondilly in 2007, and slightly less than North Sydney, but Camden is now approximately 50% more populous than North Sydney, and is about to overtake Ryde to be ranked twentieth in terms of Sydney councils with the most voters. And we’re not close to the end of this growth.
The graph shows Blacktown and Camden in more detail because I downloaded every datapoint for those two councils, while I just downloaded one per year for other councils. You can also see how Blacktown has caught up on Canterbury-Bankstown about a year ago, after starting about 15% behind in 2007.
Camden’s neighbouring councils of Campbelltown, Liverpool and Penrith all have an enrolment of 110-150,000 each, and I expect that Camden will end up in a similar range when the current growth slows down.
That’s it for now, I’ll be back later this week to dive deeper into Camden and Blacktown councils.