I have been limiting my focus for the upcoming NSW council elections on the 25 most populous councils, 24 of which have elections this year.
Amongst these councils, one council stands out from the rest: Ku-ring-gai.
It’s the only council where none of the major parties run. It’s also the only council which uses 2-member wards. 15 of these 25 councils use 3-member wards, with the other nine either having no wards at all or using wards of greater magnitude.
The council has been in the news recently, with the councillors dividing into two factions of five councillors each. The recent mayoral election saw the mayoralty drawn out of a hat, with a new mayor then moving to hold a series of extraordinary council meetings, apparently with the intention of removing the general manager, but the meetings failed due to a lack of quorum, with the other faction staying home.
When I wrote my guide to Ku-ring-gai, I avoided doing any maps showing votes for each party or a breakdown of votes by ward, as I did for my other guides. It’s still possible to do such analysis when the major parties don’t run – but the problem was I couldn’t identify any factions that existed in more than one ward. It seemed to be a series of five contests between groups for one seat at a time.
Yet the current factional arrangement seems more solid. The councillors broke down the same way at the deputy mayoral elections in 2020 and 2021, and the recent mayoral election. The mayoral election saw the incumbent Jennifer Anderson challenged by her rival Cedric Spencer. The vote was tied 5-all, and Spencer won the mayoralty with a draw out of a hat.
This result doesn’t just change who wears the mayoral robes, but it actually reverses control of the council, since the mayor possesses a casting vote in addition to their own. So a tightly deadlocked council will see mayoral votes drawn out of a hat, with the winner’s side having control on most votes for the mayoral term.
I also noticed that each faction has one councillor in each of the five wards, as follows:
|Ward||Anderson faction||Spencer faction|
|Comenarra||Callum Clarke||Jeff Pettett|
|Gordon||Cheryl Szatow||Peter Kelly|
|Roseville||Jennifer Anderson||Sam Ngai|
|St Ives||Martin Smith||Christine Kay|
|Wahroonga||Donna Greenfield||Cedric Spencer|
Now this gets into an interesting space of defining what is a “faction” and what is a “party”. I’m in the early stages of reading some books about the evolution of the first political parties in colonial politics in the 19th century, but one of the points is about them moving from being groups of politicians supporting a particular leader to having an organisation outside of the parliament, and reflecting voting patterns.
I see no reason to think that anyone who voted in Ku-ring-gai in 2017 knew that they were voting for an Anderson or a Spencer candidate. Indeed the 2017 mayoral election was won on a vote of 5-4-1 with Anderson beating a candidate who is now in her faction, and the 5-4 split at the 2018 deputy mayoral election also broke down on different lines. The current split seems to date to 2020.
But it will be interesting to see how these factions translate into the election, because Ku-ring-gai’s electoral system is the absolute worst for producing deadlocks.
Each ward elects two councillors, so the quota is just over one third of the vote. If you have two relatively evenly-matched sides they will each win one seat. And any other contenders don’t get a look in. In a system with two strong parties across the whole council, it would produce a 5-5 tie almost every time.
It’s unlikely that will happen in Ku-ring-gai, because I suspect there will still be some turnover with new candidates and retirements. Despite nominations closing soon it’s still not clear how much of the current council will recontest. But if these factions evolve into parties, the voting system will become wholly unsuitable.
Finally, out of interest I mapped out the results of the 2017 election for each of these two factions, both as a ward total and by booth.
In one ward there were only two groups running, with each group electing one councillor, but in every other ward there were other groups running who don’t fit into the two current factions. It’s also worth noting that St Ives ward has had a by-election since 2017. David Citer resigned in 2018, and was replaced by Christine Kay, who had been unsuccessful in 2017.
|Ward||Anderson faction||Spencer faction||Others|
Here are those numbers mapped by ward:
And the same data mapped by booth on election day: