Party politics spreads across Sydney councils


Over the last two decades, we’ve seen the culmination of a long trend of political parties taking on a more dominant role in local government in urban New South Wales, particularly in the Greater Sydney region. The Liberal Party has moved into council politics in a lot more of Sydney, while the Greens have become a factor in many councils.

It’s hard to collect solid data on party representation in local government any further back than 2004. The 2004 data I’m using is from an old spreadsheet I made a decade ago, and it only covers Greater Sydney, so for this purpose I’ve decided to just analyse the Sydney region. There is also a strong partisan presence in bigger regional cities like Newcastle and Wollongong, and the Greens run in a bunch of places around the state. But independents still remain dominant in most rural councils.

The ALP has a long history of contesting local government. A book chapter about urban politics from 1984 (Halligan and Paris1) states that Labor contested “most Sydney councils” at the time, and traces the history of Labor candidates in local government back to the 1890s.

Things were different on the Liberal side. Halligan and Paris said that the Liberal Party first endorsed candidates “in Sydney” prior to the 1974 election (not clear if they mean the City or the broader Sydney region). In the City of Sydney, a party called Civic Reform existed from 1920 until it merged with the Liberal Party in 1983. Multiple state governments from the 1940s until 2004 repeatedly merged and split the City of Sydney to shift the political balance, and the conservative beneficiaries of Liberal changes were Civic Reform, who held a majority on the council from 1969 until 1980.

You can get a picture of what urban conservative politics used to look like on Sydney councils by looking at rural councils where everyone runs as an independent, but many of them are politically conservative, and some are even party members.

If you look at the four election cycles from 2004 until 2016-17, you can see shifts in a number of councils over that time. I’ve grabbed all of the data on which councils Labor, the Greens and the Liberal Party have contested since 2004.

Starting simple, this first chart shows how much of Greater Sydney each party contested at each election cycle (as a proportion of the formal vote).

Labor contested 90% of the city in 20042, but this proportion declined over the next two elections then bounced back to a higher level in 2016/17. When you look at the map (posted at the end of this blog post), you don’t actually see much decline – Labor ran in Manly in 2008 after not running in 2004, and ran in less wards in Woollahra. Labor then withdrew from Hornsby in 2012. In 2016-17 they ran for Camden for the first time, and also ran for the new Northern Beaches council after not running for two of the three predecessor councils.

The Liberal Party has been steadily increasing the share of the city they run in, from 73% in 2004 to almost 93% in 2016-17. They were already present in a lot of the city by the start of this time period. The Liberal Party were already contesting much of central and western Sydney by 2004, although there were often missing patches across that area. Apart from Manly, the Liberals were not running in anywhere in northern Sydney, as far west as what was then called Baulkham Hills Shire. They also stayed out of Camden Council in the south-west.

Since 2004, the party has advanced deeper into conservative heartland on the north shore. They first ran in the Hills, Lane Cove and Ryde in 2008, added Hornsby and Camden in 2012, and then added Hunters Hill and the remainder of the new Northern Beaches in 2016-17. They now only avoid running in a narrow band of northern Sydney stretching from Mosman to Ku-ring-gai, along with Wollondilly in the outer south-west.

There has often been a tit-for-tat between the parties. The Liberal Party ran for Camden in 2012, and swept the council. Labor then responded in 2016 and produced a council with no single-party majority.

There isn’t much of a geographic pattern of advancement for the Greens since 2004. They obviously run everywhere in the eastern suburbs and inner west where they are strong (but are surprisingly absent in the lower north shore), and then run a smattering elsewhere. While they have increased the proportion of the city they contest since 2004, the pattern is similar.

One big difference between the Greens and the major parties is that the Greens will often just run in part of a council, whereas Labor and (especially) Liberal will usually run in every ward of a council or not at all. I had originally produced the maps and charts in this article looking at who contested each council, not ward, and on that measure the Greens have contested about as much of the city as the Liberal Party. But at the ward level they fall behind.

At the 2012, 2016 and 2017 elections, there was not a single case of the Liberal Party contesting part of a council. And about 98-99% of voters in councils contested by Labor had a Labor candidate. Yet only 62-75% of voters in councils contested by the Greens had a Greens candidate in their ward. This figure has risen slightly over the last few election cycles.

This reflects a different approach to local government. Outside of a small part of Sydney, the Greens are not usually running to try and be a dominant party on the council, but rather to win one or two seats, and generally see value in winning councillors as footholds in areas. The Greens are willing to run in any part of the city, so it’s more a question of resources and available candidates. On the other hand, the major parties could probably run a candidate in every ward of the city, but it’s a question of willingness.

It’s worth noting that the amalgamations in 2016 made the task of contesting elections easier, and made parties better suited than independents to some of the bigger councils. You can see this best in Northern Beaches. While all three parties had contested Manly since 2004, neither major party had touched Warringah or Pittwater (the Greens would run and win seats on and off in both councils), but now run full tickets along the peninsula (as will the Greens in 2021).

Generally you see parties contesting larger councils, which makes sense. The logistical effort of running a campaign is stretched beyond the ability of an individual independent, and larger councils are more likely to have impacts beyond that local area.

Finally, I wanted to show a different chart based on the same data. This dataset will be useful for calculating swings and showing how things shift in 2021 at a city-wide level. When you click through to the maps below, you can see the percentage of the vote and the number of councillors for the three parties (and for the remainder). I may do some other analysis using this data down the track. And I’m also planning to update the analysis on contestation rates when nominations close.

So this last chart shows the percentage of the formal vote cast for each of these parties over the last four election cycles.

You can see the general political trends over this period – the Greens vote peaked in 2008 and crashed in 2012. The Labor vote reached a low point and the Liberal vote a high point in 2012, eighteen months after the Coalition’s landslide victory at the state election. But most interesting is the trend for other candidates, who polled 44.5% in 2004 and just 32.3% in 2016-17.

That’s it for now. Finally, maps showing this story in much greater detail, for Labor (red), Liberal (blue) and Greens (greens)2 .

1 John Halligan and Chris Paris, ‘The Politics of Local Government,’ in John Halligan and Chris Paris (eds), Australian Urban Politics (Melbourne: Longman Chesire, 1984), 58-72. Thanks to Chris Monnox for tracking down the chapter and scanning it.

2 While uncontested elections aren’t common in urban councils, there was at least two uncontested wards at every election from 2004 until 2012 – the entire Botany Bay council was uncontested in 2004 and 2008, as were two of six Botany Bay wards in 2012. One ward of Ku-ring-gai was uncontested in 2008, and one of the two Hunter’s Hill wards was uncontested in 2004. Unfortunately my methodology measures proportion of the city by the number of votes cast, so uncontested wards effectively count for zero. It’s also worth noting that Warringah and Liverpool did not hold elections in 2004. Wollongong missed out in 2008 (with their next election held in 2011), but there hasn’t been any more recent council sackings in Greater Sydney, until Central Coast in 2020.

2 I don’t actually have shapefiles for the 2004 council elections, so I just used the 2008 boundaries where they could be matched up. In the case of Mosman and Kogarah, which changed the number of wards between 2004 and 2008, I merged them and mapped them as a whole council, but the party balance was the same in each ward so it doesn’t change the appearance of the map.

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  1. Loving the informative and data based posts Ben! Great Work!

    Just a minor correction, Hornsby wasn’t contested by Liberals officially until 2012, not 2008. (That’s in the 3rd paragraph below the first graph. Also a small error in the third sentence… “They new only…” Should read “They now only…”) Considering how thorough the article is and I only found those couple of mistakes, just shows how high quality your work is. I have to say I’m more excited for these upcoming council elections than usual, thanks to all the information and posters here. Will be interesting to see a ‘total’ Councillors article post-declaration of results, something similar to what they do in the UK, compared to this year to see any further trends comparing contested to actual representation in the party numbers over Sydney.

  2. There will be more Red on the map on the North Shore this year Ben. ALP running in Lane Cove (East Ward), and both wards of North Sydney (they now only have 2, down from 3).

    Though they are small Councils, they could be ones to watch.

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