The impact of direct mayoral elections


Two weeks ago I published a blog post laying out which councils will be holding direct mayoral elections as part of the upcoming NSW council elections.

Today I thought I would consider some of the ways in which that voting system changes how the broader council voting system, and the council itself, works.

There are four councils considering a change to their mayoral voting system at this election. Three councils are holding referendums to switch to a direct mayoral election: Bega Valley, Ryde and Wagga Wagga. Griffith is also considering a referendum to return to a council-elected mayor, while also reducing the number of councillors from 12 to 9.

The first issue that arises from directly-elected mayors is the impact on the proportionality of the council. The direct mayoralty effectively acts as a “bonus seat” to whoever wins it. It is typical for mayoral candidates to also run for the council, and if they are elected mayor their votes are passed on at full value to their next preference, which in big urban councils usually means the next member of their ticket.

The best example of how this affects proportionality is to look at the City of Sydney. That council consists of nine councillors plus the lord mayor, with no wards. This means that the council election is quite proportional. But the winning mayoral team effectively gives a bonus seat.

Over the last four terms, Clover Moore’s party has won 4 out of 9 seats twice, and 5 out of 9 seats twice. In the terms where she only won 4 out of 9, that is not a majority. But if you add the mayoral vote, and use the casting vote, it gives her a majority.

Now other councils aren’t quite so proportional so it isn’t always messing up quite so obviously. 3-member wards don’t produce a great deal of precise mathematical fairness in terms of seat results. All the same, the mayoral vote adds this majoritarian element, giving a bonus to the biggest major party above their share.

A mayoral vote can also act like a tiebreaker. 2-member and 4-member wards in particular can produce deadlocked councils, where one “side” wins exactly half the seats off 33% or 40% of the primary vote (depending on the magnitude). In Shellharbour, Labor will almost certainly win four out of eight seats on the council (with little to no prospect of them winning three or five), and the mayoralty will thus give them a small but clear majority. In Wollongong, Labor holds six council seats, and if they win the mayoralty that will also give them a majority.

But there is no guarantee that a mayor will be on the same side as a majority on a council. Of course local council party systems are complex and there are often more than two “sides” on a council, but there is usually a group that is in “power” and some councillors who are in “opposition”. And a directly-elected mayor gets into trouble when they are in the opposition.

Directly-elected mayors are common in the United States, but they are usually at the head of a different system, where the mayor has their own source of executive power separate from the elected council. This parallels the US presidential system of separation of powers. The lord mayor of Brisbane has similar authority that still gives them power without control of the council.

That isn’t the case with mayors in New South Wales. If you look at what you get as “the mayor”, you get paid a bit more than your council colleagues, you often have extra resources from the council, and the mayor has a symbolic role as the public face of the council that can give them some authority to push the council in a particular direction. But from a constitutional perspective, a mayor is just another councillor, except with the right to chair meetings and to cast a tiebreaking vote (in addition to their deliberative vote) when needed.

Executive power in NSW councils is not held by the mayor – it’s generally held by a general manager, employed by and directed by the council as a whole.

A mayor is really powerful in a council when they lead a party or faction that is in control of the council, or is at least one of the groups in a position of power.

In contrast it’s worth looking at Shoalhaven, where the Greens won the mayoralty in 2016 after two different right-wing groups preferenced against each other. Those groups later came to reconcile and the Greens have effectively been in opposition since that time, despite holding the mayoralty. I don’t think it’s necessarily a good thing to lock in the mayoralty when the political direction of the council is set by others.

State and federal governments exist based on their ability to pass legislation (at least through the lower house). I think the same argument means that the leadership of the council should be chosen by that same council.

I think accountability and coverage of local government would be better if we understood who was in “power” in a council and who isn’t, and thus who is responsible for the council’s direction. We don’t hold the federal ALP responsible for the policies of the federal government, and it would be silly to hold councillors responsible for policies if they are in the role of opposition. A directly elected mayor who is not in power misleads voters about who is actually responsible for the policies of the council.

There are plenty of arguments in favour of directly elected mayors that I won’t get into here (I won’t pretend to be neutral on this topic). There is often an appeal to simplistic notions of democracy and avoiding “back-room deals”. But it is the nature of politics that deals are struck to form majorities, and the removal of the mayor from those deals doesn’t mean they don’t happen. The two conservative factions on Shoalhaven have traded the roles of Deputy Mayor and “Assistant Deputy Mayor” for the last five years.

You can also argue that direct election makes it easier for people to know who they are voting for. We know that we are choosing between Scott Morrison or Anthony Albanese to be prime minister at the next federal election but I don’t really know who is a contender for Mayor of Parramatta after the election. There are at least two potential Labor candidates, while the disappearance of the Liberal Party means the anti-Labor contenders for mayor are more of a mystery.

This, however, is just part of the problem with a lack of information for voters in local government elections. If voters cared that much about who their mayor was, political parties would have an incentive to put forward clear leaders as mayoral candidates, and we wouldn’t see so much change during the term. I’m not sure that voters care that much, but it would help if coverage of local government was better (something I’m trying to help with by covering this election so thoroughly).

There are also arguments that a directly elected mayor ensures strong and consistent leadership, but that can be achieved with council-elected mayors. Ryde (who are considering a switch to direct election) have been led by the same person for the last four years. The Inner West had a single mayor from September 2017 until he lost power in September 2021. I would also argue that Clover Moore’s strength doesn’t come from direct election, but from the popularity that has allowed her to win at least four out of nine seats on the council for four straight elections.

One thing that has helped with reducing the chopping and changing of mayors in local councils has been the extension of mayoral terms from one year to two. This became an option around the time of the amalgamations in 2016, and seems to have been adopted by many councils, and it has reduced the churn in the council’s leadership. I think it’s a good thing and a more sensible approach than taking the decision out of the hands of councillors.

As I stated at the start, voters in four councils will get to rule on this issue in the coming weeks. I hope voters in Ryde, Wagga Wagga, Bega Valley and Griffith take these arguments onboard when they vote.

I should also note that the sixth instalment in my podcast series, about Ryde council, came out yesterday. It features a discussion on this topic with my guest, who like myself was opposed to the switch to direct election. Check it out!

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  1. Hi Ben, Congratulations on a great article.
    In fact I couldn’t read your personal preference from it.
    Here at Ku-ring-gai there is discussion about alternative methods due to the current hung council and the laughable method of tie-breaking for mayoral and deputy mayoral votes of pulling a name from a hat.
    Much of your discussion comes from the expectation of a party-political divide on council. We are fortunate to have no formal party representation. All candidates claim to be independent, although lots of allegations of partisanship are thrown around. Even at last night’s meeting, despite the apparently even split, there were many different vote counts. This is pleasing for me.
    I have a strong belief that every elected member in every level of government should always vote primarily on their conscience. I abhor the party-political system in place at state and federal levels. Crossing the floor is essentially prohibited by the parties. Obviously alignments of ideology will naturally happen, but there should be no fear of voting against your colleague.
    At state and federal levels we also have the problem of strong nonproportionality and hence nondemocracy. Electorates are effectively gerrymandered. At the last election the Greens required 23 times the number of votes per seat as the Nationals.
    The council structure we have is akin to the board of a non-profit organisation, where the mayor is equivalent to the chair. This seems an appropriate way to govern a council.
    I fear that direct election of mayor would only politicise the process and increase the risk of parties formally entering the race. This would be retrograde for democracy.

  2. Yes, it’s funny that our politicians and const lawyers are generally so proud of the system of “responsible government” that the Canadian, NZ and Australian colonies fought for as they became self-governing, and yet we have directly-elected Mayors (responsible to nobody until the next election) in so many councils. Despite frequent complaints, responsible gov’t generally works better than the alternative. 90 or 150 MPs are watching the behaviour of the PM/Premier and when s/he loses their confidence (possibly because of losing his/her marbles) a new one is installed. Yes, sometimes it’s because of petty squabbling in the majority party, but that’s still far better than being stuck with a Nixon or Trump for 4 years despite increasing evidence of senility, and only being able to sack him by going through a process which convulses the government and nation for months. Responsibility to the “chamber” is better at the Federal and State level, and would be better at the LG level too.

  3. Bruce Daniel
    you are correct that the Greens require more votes than the major parties to get a seat. However there are many other groups that require even more votes to get and get no seats in Parliament. I recall DLP Senator John Madigan pointing out that he got more primary votes than then PM Julia Gillard got, but he was constantly accused of getting elected unfairly.

  4. Andrew, the point about John Madigan vs Julia Gillard was raised by Anthony Green. He argued that the contests are different (Julia Gillard was contesting a lower house seat with enrolment about 150k voters vs John Madigan contesting statewide with enrolment well over 1 million voters).

  5. In addition to what Yoh An has brought up, there’s also the fact that at the time, group-ticket voting (GTV) was a thing in the Australian Senate. Voters could only either put 1 above-the-line for their preferred party or have to number 1 to 60 for all Senate candidates in their state with no breaks or errors. Many voters very likely put 1 for another party, but had their preferences distributed to the DLP even when they would have preferred their preferences to go to someone else.

    When we abolished GTV, suddenly all of these near-100% preference flows vanished. Hence we can say that it’s very likely that had GTVs and group-ticket preference swaps not been a thing, John Madigan would not have been elected to the Senate and therefore his election could be considered “unfair”.

  6. A council-wide seat with tiebreaking power has it merits, particularly in councils with an otherwise even number of members and similarly jurisdiction-wide tiebreaker electorates could be an option in parliaments. It also reduces ward apportionment issues, as all votes are equal. It is however pointless in unsubdivided councils (e.g. Melbourne and Sydney).

    Directly elected executive officials, such as the Lord Mayor of Brisbane, are a bad idea.

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