Referendums at the NSW council elections

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Voters at the upcoming council elections aren’t just voting for their local councillors. In a number of councils voters are also voting on questions put to them by the council. Many of these are referendums required to change the constitutional structure of the council, while some are just asking the opinion of the voters.

At least ten questions are being asked of voters in nine councils in 2021. Nine of these questions are constitutional referendums, while the tenth is a non-binding poll on deamalgamating the three former councils in the Inner West.

In this post I’ll run through each of these questions, and also sum up the results of referendums and polls held at the 2016 and 2017 elections.

First up, an eleventh question has been withdrawn in the Greater Hume council area. This council is divided into three wards. I’ve previously explained how dividing a council into wards, particularly when the population is small – significantly increases the risk of uncontested elections. And what do you know, that’s what happened in the East ward of Greater Hume. So a referendum that could result in fewer uncontested elections has been postponed due to an uncontested election which would have otherwise meant voters in one third of the council would have turned out only to vote on the referendum.

In summary, two of these votes reduce the council size, three would introduce a directly elected mayor, one would introduce a council-elected mayor, three abolish the wards in the council and one would seek the views of voters on deamalgamation.

Armidale

Do you support a reduction in the number of councillors for Armidale Regional Council from eleven to nine?

Pretty straightforward. Armidale currently elects eleven councillors with no wards. This would reduce the number to nine as of 2024.

Bega Valley

Should the Bega Valley Shire have a popularly elected Mayor from 2024?

Bega Valley’s council consists of nine councillors including a council-elected mayor. I assume this referendum would result in the number of councillors elected on the council ballot dropping to eight, but I’m not sure.

Dubbo

I don’t have a question yet for this referendum. It appeared on the NSWEC website later than all the others which I found when I checked every electorate profile. So I’m a bit concerned there may be others that have been missed.

The referendum is about abolishing the current wards, and it’s possible there is a second question on increasing the number of councillors to eleven, or that both are combined in one question, based on this September article.

Dubbo is currently divided into five wards, with each ward electing two councillors. You know my thoughts on two-member wards.

The council was created in 2016 as a merger of the former Dubbo and Wellington councils. The new council was originally named ‘Western Plains’ but was renamed ‘Dubbo’ shortly after the amalgamation.

The problem was that Wellington only makes up a small part of the council’s population, and the wards appear to have been drawn to allow for a Wellington-dominated ward. That ward covers the entire former Wellington council area plus some rural parts of the former Dubbo council area, with the remainder of Dubbo split into four, including two entirely contained within the town of Dubbo. You can view the ward map here.

Of course there’s no reason Wellington voters couldn’t have representation without wards. If Wellington makes up, say, one sixth of the council’s voter base, a council electing eleven councillors without wards would have a quota of 8.3%. If every Wellington-based voter voted for a Wellington-based candidate, two would likely win. If voters in Wellington prefer to prioritise other factors (such as ideology, gender, personality etc) that is their choice. Yet the wards force the prioritisation of geography over other considerations.

I’m a fan of this referendum.

Griffith

  • Do you agree that the number of Councillors elected to Griffith City Council be reduced from 12 to 9?
  • Do you agree that the election of the Mayor to Griffith City Council be changed from popularly elected to elected by Councillors?

These two questions are being asked separately so it’s possible one could pass and the other could fail.

Inner West

In May 2016, Ashfield, Leichhardt and Marrickville councils were amalgamated into one local government area by the State Government.

Do you support the Inner West local government area being de-amalgamated, so as to restore the former local government areas of Ashfield, Leichhardt and Marrickville?

This question is a “poll” and not a “referendum” because it is not binding.

I’m not going to try and give an opinion of the finances of amalgamation and deamalgamation, except to note that it’s likely both processes are costly. Nor am I going to give an opinion on whether the quality of services has improved or worsened with amalgamation.

But in terms of which councils “fit” together the best, I find it strange that Inner West is the only council voting on deamalgamation. There was a proposal for a similar poll in Bayside but it did not pass through council – there’s a much stronger case for that council to be deamalgamated. I also think Canterbury-Bankstown is a stronger case. Indeed there’s probably a stronger case for breaking up Blacktown than Inner West.

Thanks to Oz Chiu for posting the official yes and no cases for this poll:

Murray River

Do you wish to remove the three wards currently in place (Moama, Greater Wakool and Greater Murray with three Councillors elected within each ward), within Murray River Council to become an undivided Local Government Area?

Another small council proposing abolition of its wards. Good idea.

Ryde

Do you support a popularly elected Mayor where the voters of the City of Ryde elect the Mayor for a four (4) year term, thereby adopting a thirteen (13) Councillor model (including the Mayor)?

I’ve already given my thoughts on direct election of mayors.

Interestingly Ryde would add an extra councillor unlike in Bega Valley or Wagga Wagga.

It’s also worth noting that this would result in Ryde having exactly the same electoral structure as Wollongong, Shoalhaven and Lake Macquarie – three wards of four plus a mayor.

When you have wards and a directly-elected mayor it’s hard to have more than 13 councillors, unless you either use two-member wards or seven-member wards (which does not currently exist anywhere in NSW). So a lot of councils with mayors either use 3×4 or 4×3.

Wagga Wagga

The Mayor of Wagga Wagga is currently elected every two (2) years by the nine (9) Councillors. Do you approve of the direct election of the Mayor by the voters of Wagga Wagga, for a four (4) year term, noting this will result in increased election costs each and every election?

Precisely the same change as proposed in Bega Valley.

Walcha

Do you favour the removal of the current ward based system so that all voters select all eight (8) Councillors that represent the Walcha Council area?

Walcha currently has four wards, each electing two councillors. Like in Greater Hume and Shellharbour, the wards in a small council have resulted in uncontested elections in two out of four wards, while only three candidates are running in each of the other two wards.

Unlike in Greater Hume, they are still holding the referendum, so hopefully this is last time this inferior system is used.

Referendums in 2016-17

17 referendums and polls were held in 2016 and 2017 across eleven councils.

Eight of these questions passed, with the other nine failing.

Three councils changed to the direct election of mayor: Dungog, Shellharbour and Wollondilly. A similar referendum in Upper Hunter failed. North Sydney switched from direct mayoral election to a council-elected mayor.

Shellharbour voted to increase their councillor numbers, while Cabonne and Dungog voted to reduce their councillor numbers. Narrandera voted against a reduction in council numbers, while Tweed voted against an increase.

Shellharbour voted to introduce wards, but a similar referendum in Hawkesbury failed. Dungog and Tenterfield (which also uses 2-member wards) voted against abolishing wards.

In Dungog one referendum passed and the other failed. The reduction in councillor numbers from nine to seven and the introduction of a directly-elected mayor, without abolishing the wards, forced the 3-member wards to change to 2-member wards.

There were also five non-binding polls. Cumberland council voters supported a poll to continue operating five pools in the council area.

Dungog put up four polls on amalgamation. Dungog voters opposed a merger with Maitland or to break up Dungog between neighbouring councils, but also opposed Dungog standing alone, with a majority supporting a merger with Port Stephens. I don’t know whether there has been any progress on this poll since 2017.

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1 COMMENT

  1. Canterbury Bankstown May have been forced to Amalgamate by the Liberal national Party Coalition, But its All the labor councillors who neglected Canterbury and favoured Bankstown , including all those Labor councillors in the Canterbury/Roselands LGAs,. Canterbury needs to split away from biased Bankstown and the next local election might provide candidates to do that.

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