What trends can we see in council results?


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.

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  1. Remembering that Sydney Councillor vote is only 21% counted, and no pre-poll or ivote and only a handful of postals, do you think Labor can hold onto its lead for the 9th spot?

  2. Any word on the Inner West Referendum? The results seem to be taking an unusually long time, especially for a Yes or No answer (Based on the NSWEC Virtual tally room- the results have been ready but not published)

    Interesting take on the 2 member wards, which I think make the Councillors more accountable. I’d advocate for more Wards, and less councillors per ward. What I find tends to happen if you have a ward of 3 or more, they all pass the buck when it comes to difficult issues or just to play politics, especially if all Councillors are from different parties.
    That’s why the Senate/Upper House and Hare-Clark are dud systems. I’ve taken up numerous issues dealing with local problems but get palmed off to Lower House reps. Same issue with At-Large Councils, like Canada Bay, which are dominated by one side of the city and thus all the funding goes there.
    With 2 member wards or even single member wards, the Councillors generally have smaller grounds to cover and can campaign more directly; it also makes the campaign more even based on money needed to run it. Less mail outs, less volunteers to cover the ground.
    They’re also more cognizant of local issues, like road repair, parking etc..
    One of the problems with non-partisan Councils is the proliferation of unknown Independent candidates, more wards, and less spots available means candidates have to interact more with the public, and not hide behind an ambiguous party ticket
    Canada Bay, Burwood and Strathfield are all looking to potentially move to Wards in the next term

  3. LJ Davidson, there are pros and cons with single member wards. In Brisbane, there are single member wards but it makes the council quite partisan in nature. Whilst most councillors have more flexibility in terms of voting against their party line, the ‘leaders’ of each party (mayor and opposition leader) can be quite vocal compared to what I have seen in NSW/Sydney councils.

    Then again, the sheer size and population of Brisbane City Council could also impact the nature of elected representatives, as each ward is probably the same size as a single council in the Sydney metropolitan area.

  4. Where have the olc won their seat in canterbury bankstown…….. I cannot see that on stated figures.
    The point you made about informal votes is spot on….. Ballot papers where people voted both above and below the line were not counted properly…. they were placed in the too hard pile and passed on… With a drop in the informal vote I expect the alp vote will rise in Canterbury and Cumberland councils

  5. @Mick Quinlivan Looks like the only place in Canterbury-Bankstown OLC is running is Revesby ward where they are ahead of the second Labor and second Liberal in the race for the third slot. Unless Group C’s preferences are known to strongly favour one of the major parties (I have no idea myself) they seem a decent favourite on the current numbers. But there are also a lot of polling places yet to report there so it seems a bit premature to say they’ve won it.

  6. In Revesby ward everyone except the parkers are reco mending a vote one only…the figures I saw olc were about 10% short of a quota… alp seems to be out polling the libs… so if basically no preferences then alp and libs are each in a contest for a second seat. As pointed out a lot of counting remains

  7. “It’s possible Shoalhaven will no longer be a one-party majority, and it’s certain in Campbelltown and the City of Sydney.”

    Isn’t is certain that Clover has won a majority in Sydney? Minimum winnings of Mayor + 4 seats = 5 + casting vote on a 10 member council, seems to me that Clover is guaranteed to keep her majority.

    I also think it’s possible (maybe even likely) that Clover’s team will overtake Labor’s number of quotas to grab another seat to have an even stronger majority (and give a buffer against another Kerryn Phelps-style defection).

  8. A comment from the bleachers. [and by bleachers, I mean Yass Valley]
    This region has seen a strong focus from tree-changers because of our close proximity to Canberra. Indeed, 51% of adults commute to Canberra to work, so we should expect this to influence a shift from independent conservatives towards more progressive candidates. We are only at the first preferences stage of counting, but it appears that the Greens have secured around two quotas [there are nine vacancies] at their first appearance as a party on our ballot paper. As for the rest, well… it could be that the owner of the local newspaper is re-elected, as are a couple of very old and very conservative stalwarts. A local artist and small business owner could also make the grade. She is married to a prominent land developer so this could create some tension going forward.
    I expect that the success of a major (?) party incursion onto the Council may prod both Liberals and Labor to present Groups for the next elections, a mere three years away!

  9. Bankstown Cant.

    Revesby Ward.
    Quota= 6157
    One Labor
    One Lib
    OLC= 3026
    Labor= 3933
    Libs= 3284

    Labor leads by 649

    Should take possition.
    Figures are from alp scrutineers.
    Below the line and I vote and one small booth to come.
    Grant Lee

  10. Martin, I don’t consider 5/10 to be a majority. Yes a casting vote gives them effective control but it’s fragile.

    LJ, I think 2-member wards are the exact opposite of accountability, since it makes it so hard to turf out councillors. Likewise one-member wards. A lot of them will be safe seats. The higher the magnitude, the more seats that are in play.

  11. Cumberland update

    According to the hopeless NSW electoral website in all five Cumberland wards remain results that have not been declared for many polling booths. I have been advised that an Olc candidate in wentworthville ward Group D received less votes than the green group C in two polling booths. Basically they were lapped by the length of the randwick racecourse. It is extremely likely that Lisa lake will be re-elected meaning that labor gains a majority. The current Cumberland deputy mayor and former liberal councillor Zaiter will obtain a quota and his vote transfer could elect Lisa lake. Why on earth would you bother sending scrutineers to observe this public flogging. In regents park ward three critical lidcombe booths are not listed with Helen Hughes from OLC struggling against the labor GroupA ticket and a labor box trifecta is on the agenda. Current liberal councillor Ned Attie has been eliminated and exhausting faster than the Titanic. A labor box trifecta would be amazing.

  12. Ben, Agree to disagree. I think 2 member wards would make councillors more scrutinised, as the spotlight is on them, it also allows for parties to refresh the ticket if polling suggests certain councillors are on the nose.
    In the case of “At-Large” councils like Canada Bay, Burwood and Strathfield, some councillors have been embedded there for 20 year or more because they can hide in plane sight on a large party ticket.

    In other words, a Councillor who is a member of an established party, and controls a large branch, gets preselected, will always get re-elected on a large ticket, if they are in a semi-winnable to winnable position. That makes them virtually impossible to disloge, a voters would have to vote below the line to remove them.

    In Wards where the spots are fewer, it is easier for voters to vote below the line and remove entrenched councillors.

    There’s also no reason for them to extensively campaign in parts of the electorate, if they know they can get elected via meeting a small proportion- just like the NSW Upper House and Senate at double dissolution elections

    I’m genuinely surprised the major parties (Labor/Coalition), haven’t opted for this method of thinking as it essentially makes elections a 2-horse race, and squeezes out the Greens and Minor parties. Broadly speaking the growth of the Greens has been in large part to them getting oxygen from Local Government representation where the threshold was low, they imparted the same strategy to the Senate and Upper House; which has been smart for them. They’ve seen growth in these chambers, which eventually has permeated to enclaves in the lower house like Balmain and Newtown.

    Labor interestingly, which will always perform better when it is just a contest between them and the Liberals or Nationals, has declined in their vote at both a Council level where the “Progressive/Left Vote” has become more fractured.

    Perhaps a good compromise would be an MMP/List style, where Wards and At-Large can co-exist. Which I don’t believe has ever been experimented with at a Local Government level.

    Happy to discuss this on a podcast with you 😉

  13. If we had two-member electorates for other elections almost every seat would be 1 Labor 1 Liberal. How easy it is to “dislodge” “entrenched” members is not a good metric at all for how good a voting system is.

  14. Exactly right Nicholas. It’s theoretically possible to unseat any member in a single-member electorate but in safe seats it’s still very rare. LJ, it sounds like you’ve never paid attention to how actual 1-member and (especially) 2-member electorates work in practice.

  15. Gentlemen, even if that were the case that there would only be a Labor/Liberal split, wouldn’t that be broadly reflective of the electorate at large, in which the majority- key word- of the electorate wants either 1 of those parties?

    I think what you don’t understand Ben, is that in Australia, we have very lazy politicians when it comes to campaigning due to compulsory voting and preferential voting. Candidates do not nearly have to work as hard to campaign, get out the vote as say politicians in the US, Canada, Britain and New Zealand.
    Notably all are also First Past the Post as well, which I think also has merit at a Local Government level.

    My broader point is that limited supply of spots in a wards, makes for better politicians because they have to be more visibly present. Less spots, means more competitive campaigning, means candidates have to work harder to get votes.
    If you’ve got an unpopular councillor, in a small ward it would be extremely easy to run a local grass roots campaign against them.

    To your last point, it would be extremely difficult to run comparative analysis given that little to no 2-member Wards exist at least in NSW. Ku-ring-gai being the only 2 member I can think of (happy to be corrected) and the old Botany Bay Council (was a single member ward council). So you’re dismissing something that hasn’t been broadly tried so therefore cannot be broadly dismissed.

    Also you’re forgetting about recognition, more people would know who there Councillor if there were more wards and less spots. It’s like Senators, there’s 12 for each state- you’d be lucky to get the average voter to name 2 of their state’s Senators. Same with Councillors, aside from the Mayor/Deputy Mayor- At-Large Councils have very poor contact and recognition with their constituents.

    The only people that seem to be against Single-Ward/2-Councillor Wards are Greens and Minor parties/Independents because they realise they can’t game the system and would need to get elected on higher proportions- which is fine to advocate- but don’t hide behind the premise that it’s because it is difficult to dislodge the incumbent member.
    That is completely farcical when you have At-Large tickets, making it extremely difficult for voters to remove unpopular councillors. Especially if you have a popular candidate heading the ticket, voters are then inconvenienced by having to number below the line, a large number of candidates just to unseat 1 unpopular councillor.

    As I said in a prior post, it would be fairly easy for an Independent to run a Council campaign if they have a smaller area to cover, and therefore less money to pump into it. They can also lean into more niche issues, which plays to their candidacy’s strengths. They don’t have to run broadstroke campaigns, which is why someone like Daniella Ramondino who was an incumbent independent councillor in Canada Bay did not get elected, as the prior election she focused heavily on Drummoyne/Abbotsford issues and barely scraped in as she was the only Independent on the ticket last time but the minute another more popular independent entered the race (OLC/Angelo Tsirekas) that strategy could not be imparted again because of the scale of the Canada Bay’s are, and because voters are forced to vote for larger issues rather than smaller target issues.

    That’s why if people are keen on the At-Large or 3 + Councillor Ward model, then have MMP; it’s much more efficient and would actually be even for all.

  16. LJ Davidson, the issue with having a two party system is that it may reinforce the ‘fringe’ side of politics, especially when combined with lack of compulsory voting. Having minor parties is a good thing, especially in the state and federal sphere when collaboration is essential to pass legislation to benefit the whole population. Many European countries do this, and whilst there can be disputes when forming coalitions, it produces a better outcome than having a two party system.

  17. The issue with unpopular representatives occupying top positions in these groups is more a problem with party preselection rather than the voting system. Agree MMP or a different style of proportional representation without lists would be better to solve this issue.

  18. @LJ Davidson

    I actually agree with your point about lazy politicians, and it’s why I support voluntary voting and optional preferential voting.

    Two member electorates would have the bizarre effect of making safe seats the ones that are most valuable to campaign in – because the stronger party will be in a position to win the second seat. While it hasn’t been tried at state or federal elections, how it would play out is mostly a question of mathematics – which we are capable of answering.

    I don’t mind MMP so long as preferences are allowed. Don’t take away my right to fully express what I want.

  19. LJ, I couldn’t disagree more with everything you say.

    The Coalition and Labor win roughly 80% of the vote. A system that delivers them all the seats is not at all representative. But the 2-member system is worse than single-member because in almost every place it would produce a 1-1 split whether it leans heavily towards one party or is split evenly. So people’s votes become pointless, since it’s rare that there’d be enough of a swing to change a seat. Look at the history of the ACT and NT Senate races.

    There are also 2-member wards in places like Dubbo and Walcha. I’ve written a blog post on this topic. Dubbo is currently abolishing the system. It tends to produce uncontested elections, since less people run. This is a particular problem in small rural councils which usually get enough candidates across a council but not necessarily distributed evenly across wards. Shellharbour has it now and has seen a dramatic reduction in the number of options for voters. One ward has been entirely uncontested, and no ward has more than three groups running.

    If you read through the council guides, you’ll see how the variety of people getting elected to councils declines dramatically with lower magnitudes. 3-member wards tend to produce a safe seat for each of the major parties and a third seat that is marginal. In Blacktown the last council had 2 Labor and 1 Liberal from every ward. On the other hand, look at Campbelltown where a variety of groups get elected.

    It is wishful thinking to think that single-member or 2-member wards increase competitiveness or force politicians to work harder. The vast majority of federal and state seats are safe.

    I also don’t agree that it’s easier for voters to know who they are voting for. Even the smallest wards (at least in the cities) are too big for a candidate to know everyone, so voters are reliant on the media to tell them about their voters. Too many tiny wards means relatively little information about the election will be relevant to that person’s ward, even in local papers. It makes it basically impossible for statewide or citywide media to cover an election properly.

  20. If there’s one place we don’t want even more partisan party politics, it’s local government. Yeah, no thanks.

  21. Agree with you Wreathy, and Brisbane City Council is probably the worst example of a partisan based local government area apart from one independent councillor (Nicole Johnson, an ex Liberal)

  22. Ben, the vast majority of federal and state seats are safe because voting is compulsory and so is preferential voting. You eliminate both of those, and seats would become far more competitive, with Independents and Minor parties playing a far greater role as a spoiler.
    If you have to work for your vote, given there are no preferences, you will see a lot more politicians campaign harder especially in 3 cornered contests, where the Greens or Nationals are viable candidates.

    We also do not have, unlike Canada or the UK, viable 3rd and 4th parties capable of winning electorates across the board. For the trajectory and growth the Greens have experienced over the last 20 years, they have not been able to achieve 2 Senators in each state, something which the Australian Democrats were able to achieve.
    The Greens have stagnated to inner city seats and the odd rural seat, which in many cases they run 3rd in and only get across the line via preferences.

    You’ve also provided 3 examples of regional/rural councils that have completely different demographics to inner city and outer suburban (metropolitan) councils.
    Clearly, At-Large would be more beneficial in those areas, especially if the population is 3 people and 8 crows. However, again MMP would be a happy marriage of direct, tailored representation vs broadscope political direction.

    The ACT/NT Senate problem that you’ve highlighted reiterates my point because they essentially operate as Lower House seats, much like the Senate campaigns of candidates in SA and Tasmania. They also have halved terms, which means they have to be continually campaigning. Jacqui Lambie got elected primarily on the vote of Burnie/North West.

    Underlying all this is the
    “But the 2-member system is worse than single-member because in almost every place it would produce a 1-1 split whether it leans heavily towards one party or is split evenly. So people’s votes become pointless, since it’s rare that there’d be enough of a swing to change a seat”
    Well on the reverse of that doesn’t that make the votes of all the people that voted for the major 2 parties/candidates also pointless because either party then has to cater to the demands of a select few? Because what then happens is either a Minor Party or group of Independents threaten to deny confidence in a Mayor based on to them not being accommodated on all their demands. This would especially be poignant in Councils without popularly-elected Mayors (which I know you’re against for some bizarre reason).

    You also mention “Even the smallest wards (at least in the cities) are too big for a candidate to know everyone, so voters are reliant on the media to tell them about their voters. Too many tiny wards means relatively little information about the election will be relevant to that person’s ward, even in local papers. It makes it basically impossible for statewide or citywide media to cover an election properly.”

    You mustn’t know many small business owners who run for office, who can easily circumvent the lack of media coverage by going door to door along the main strip of any major suburban hub. They also network heavily in organisations like Rotary, Chambers of Commerce and BNI

    I hate to break it to you but local papers are a relic of the past. No one reads them, and just like another pointless venture, the political brochure, that gets re-circulated multiple times in the election cycle, either gets destroyed win the rain or thrown directly into the recycling bin. In fact, I’m convinced that the proliferation of the same candidate brochure being received by a household actually turns voters off the person running, see Sam Crosby, Reid 2019.
    There is social media, there are street stalls.
    I would wager more people know who their Ward Councillor is than their State Senator or 1 of the 42 State Upper House Members. Most councillors have to continue working a full-time job because it is a part-time pay, and there is a synergy between that because they keep their business going and growing and concurrently become more well known in the community.
    Guess what if you are only covering 1 or 2 suburbs instead of 7 or 8, you are going to be more well known to your community. There is no difference in advocacy between a single-councillor ward, who puts their area first vs a single independent elected in At-Large council who puts the interest of their special interests first; the % of voters will be about the same.

    It’s a pity because I think this website has a lot to potentially offer, especially when it comes to Pre-Selection analysis, interviewing candidates and advocating for the opening up that process to community elections/input; which could greatly influence the caliber of candidates that enter our councils and parliaments.
    But there is a rigidity in your analysis, similar to Antony Green, that can’t seem to either accommodate or acknowledge different ideas or approaches to the electoral system. I don’t think we should have a uniform style across all councils, nor do I think one system is superior but it is important to evaluate the cause of such things like voter informality, incumbency and rise/fall of independents in local government especially in the prism of the way they get elected.

  23. In the ACT Senators do not have to continue to campaign – Zed can get returned effectively on 30% of the primary vote – he can ignore 70% of the electorate and there is no penalty for it. Which is essentially his strategy. He is often referred to as the invisible senator. Same applies to the ALP Senator who will get 45% of the vote regardless of what they do. The current 2 seat Senate system effectively disenfranchises ACT voters from effective policy debate on a wide range of issues

  24. I’m a fan of the list system at the council level. Solves a lot of problems with unrepresentative wards and the parties are usually close enough to the problems on the ground for at least someone to get familiar with local case work. A politician from Sandgate might not know what’s going on in Stretton, but someone in the party probably does. I didn’t read most of this exchange but otherwise I largely agree with Ben, two member wards seem to be the worst of both worlds.

  25. LJ, it’s nonsense to claim safe seats are caused by compulsory preferential and compulsory voting.

    Other countries that have different voting systems still have safe seats. It’s a feature of single-member electorates. The UK and Canada still have plenty of safe seats, and proper multi-party politics makes the voting system even less proportional.

    I can accomodate a variety of views on the voting system but you can’t come in here and claim that single-member electorates or 2-member electorates are a superior method of voting.

  26. If the boundaries are drawn fairly (i.e. not intentionally drawn to have a stalemate to obstruct the left, like the outgoing Pinochet regime did in Chile), there should be a reasonable number of marginal seats in a state parliament sized chamber with dual-member electorates in areas with more partisan lean. The second ACT Senate seat is not far off marginal and there are areas with a slightly more partisan lean on them (on both sides) that could be marginal under a two member system. However, 2 is still not a good magnitude for an electorate.

    I suspect that most likely enlargement of the territory representation in the Senate is adding 2 extra senators per territory and converting to 6-year terms, given that that would have the smallest partisan effect and thus is most likely to have bipartisan support.

  27. If the ACT were a 3 member election, the Greens would win the third seat and that seat would become a lot safer into the future given the Greens vote is increasing rapidly, albeit at a fairly stable rate.

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