Up until this point, most of my analysis of the NSW council elections has been contained to one council.
In one sense this makes sense – each local council is its own little polity and has its own stories. Part of what I find fascinating is the details of the stories, and you lose that detail when you try and detect broader trends that go beyond council borders. But it’s still worth looking at what stories tend to pop up again and again.
So here I’m going to look at some common trends that repeat across the 24 big councils.
Local parties going strong
By “local party” I don’t mean someone who is an independent, and I don’t necessarily mean anyone who has registered a party. Some parties don’t have a registration, and other parties are only vehicles for a single seat.
I count nine councils out of 24 where there is a local party who is now or has recently performed well: Cumberland, Fairfield, Georges River, Lake Macquarie, Newcastle, Northern Beaches, Parramatta, Shoalhaven and Sydney.
The election was a good one for Our Local Community, who ran in at least six councils and appear to have elected 11-14 councillors. They have won 3-5 seats in Cumberland, 4 in Parramatta and one in Canterbury-Bankstown. They’ve also broken through in Canada Bay, running the incumbent ex-Labor mayor. He has won and will bring in 2-3 others with him.
Fairfield mayor Frank Carbone doesn’t have a party registration but leads a team that appears to have won seven seats, including the mayoralty, out of 13 seats. You could also argue Carbone’s party also includes Dai Le, whose ticket has won 2-3 seats. That’s 9-10 seats (up from 4) out of 13 on the council, with Labor reduced to just 3-4 seats in a former Labor heartland.
The new Georges River Ratepayers and Residents Party (GRRRP) also did surprisingly well in their first outing, polling 22% and winning 4 seats on the council. They mostly wiped out the pre-existing independents and came close to the seat numbers for Labor and Liberal.
Local parties remain in power in Northern Beaches and Sydney and the Shoalhaven Independents Group still have a chance of winning the mayoralty and thus a majority on council.
It wasn’t such a great night for the Newcastle Independents. They lost their seats in three of Newcastle’s four wards, losing one to the Greens and two to the Liberal Party.
Four-member wards producing split results
Four-member wards aren’t as bad as two-member wards but there is a good reason why most experts recommend odd numbers for district magnitude.
A party needs just 40% to win half the seats, but 60% to win more than half. So a strong party can easily win half the seats, but will struggle to win more. Thus 4-member wards tend towards deadlock.
Four of the 24 councils I’ve been studying use four-member wards, with all four having three wards.
In three of these wards, one of the parties has won exactly half the seats. In the fourth there is a real risk of a deadlock.
In Shoalhaven, the Shoalhaven Independents Group has won six seats, with Labor and the Greens on three each.
In Wollongong, Labor has won six seats.
In Lake Macquarie, Labor has won six seats with the Liberal Party and the right-wing Lake Mac Independents are on three seats each.
In Ryde, there is still a seat outstanding, but Labor and the Greens have six seats between them, with the Liberal Party and a right-wing independent on five. The last seat is a contest between an independent who worked with Labor in the last term, an independent who defected from Labor when he did a deal with the Liberal Party, and a Liberal. If the latter wins, it will produce a deadlock, with the mayoralty and thus the casting vote given to the person whose name is drawn out of a hat.
The other three councils have a different way of resolving the deadlock: they have a directly-elected mayor. So Lake Macquarie Labor has won a majority, while in Wollongong and Shoalhaven we’re waiting to see who wins the mayoralty and thus control of the council.
Meanwhile in Ryde the council will be adding a directly-elected mayor in 2024, adopting exactly the same structure as these other three councils.
While the directly-elected mayor does provide a tiebreaker, I don’t love it. It reduces the council election to a very disproportionate and polarising result, and then imposes a majoritarian result to break a tie.
Informal voting rates
There’s been a lot of discussion about the large numbers of informal votes. Most election results have very high percentages, often over 20%.
You shouldn’t take those numbers too seriously yet.
On election night, NSWEC staff were instructed to not spend too much time worrying about formality. If a ballot is complex, chuck it in the informal pile. Eventually the ballot will be data entered and the computer can decide it’s formality.
The most common category of likely-formal vote in the informal pile is votes that are cast both above- and below-the-line. These ballots are examined separately above and below. If either is formal on its own, it counts. If both are formal, the below-the-line vote counts.
Now I think it’s quite possible informal rates are up, with the lack of how-to-vote cards and the withdrawal of the Liberal Party from a number of large suburban councils where parties have dominated for a while. But we’ll need to wait and see. It’s also possible that these ATL-BTL joint ballots have increased due to the lack of how-to-vote cards.
More one-party majorities
I’m noticing a trend towards a single party winning a majority on a council.
Of these 24 councils, five of them elected a one-party majority in 2016-17. Shoalhaven now has a one-party majority after the remnants of Team Gash merged into the Shoalhaven Independents Group, and Labor gained a majority in Campbelltown after a by-election in 2017. So that brings the number to seven.
It’s possible Shoalhaven will no longer be a one-party majority, and it’s certain in Campbelltown and the City of Sydney. But four other councils have switched to one-party majorities, and it may happen in six other councils. That’s 8-15 out of 24 big councils with one party in total control.
The four councils which have switched are Hornsby and Sutherland (to the Liberals), Lake Macquarie (to Labor) and Fairfield (to the Carbone-Le party).
Labor also has a chance of winning a majority in Bayside, Parramatta, Cumberland, Inner West and Wollongong. Worth noting that four of those five councils are ones where the Liberal Party withdrew. The Liberal Party has a chance in Liverpool.