Ryde council by-election a failure of policy


There’s a by-election taking place today in the West ward of Ryde council in the northern suburbs of Sydney. The by-election was triggered by the resignation of former Labor mayor and newly elected Bennelong MP Jerome Laxale, who quit to focus his efforts on his new job.

If this had happened in many councils, this would be no big deal. The ballot papers would be re-examined, and the next in line would fill the seat, using a process called ‘countback’. But the state government has been reluctant to fully embrace the new process, which has allowed some councils to stick with the expensive and unfair by-election process.

By-elections work fine in single-member electorates, but they don’t work for proportional representation which uses multi-member electorates. Under proportional representation, each representative represents a share of the total electorate. If one seat falls vacant, the voters for all of the other representatives still maintain that representation, but under a by-election they get a second bite at a cherry. Thanks to the secret ballot, we can’t identify which voters cast a ballot for the former representative, so everyone gets another go. They also have the potential to distort the proportional balance of the council, even if no voters change their vote.

The alternative is to use countbacks. I explained this process back in January in this blog post, but in short, it is a process where ballot papers are re-examined, and the person who would have won in the absence of the vacating representative is appointed to replace them. In partisan circumstances, this pretty much always results in a candidate from the same party (and where there is a ranking, the next person on the ranking).

In New South Wales, countbacks were introduced for the first time to apply after the 2021 council elections. Bizarrely, the decision to apply the new system was left up to councils – they had to opt in to countbacks, or by-elections would apply.

Also bizarrely, countbacks only apply for the first 18 months of the term. Vacancies are left empty for the last 18 months of the term, so in a typical 4-year term, the middle year would see by-elections held again, but the current term will only run for 33 months, so that won’t happen.

I haven’t found a centralised list of which councils opted in to countbacks, but in my experience most councils opted in, with staff generally recommending the option on cost grounds alone (although I’m sure some staff also understood the benefits of a speedy and fair replacement process).

But in a handful of cases the council opted out. Two I encountered were both councils where there is a clear polarisation between left and right, and the right had won a slim majority: Ryde and Lismore.

The new Liberal mayor of Ryde was quoted as describing countbacks as “undemocratic” but doesn’t really explain the logic, beyond saying that he didn’t expect any by-elections (they always say that) and that it’s better to have “a vote”. He also raises the issue of lower-ranked candidates not expecting to be called up as a councillor – but council candidates should have known about the possibility of countbacks before the election.

Since the start of this year, we’ve had six countbacks. Ryde West is the sixth by-election, but the other five were across three small rural councils and all appear to have been triggered by insufficient candidates nominating in the original election (something countbacks can’t resolve). This is the first by-election caused by sheer bloodymindedness.

It’s worth contrasting this by-election with the countback in the Mortdale ward of Georges River. Labor councillor Warren Tegg retired in late August, and within a month the seat had been filled by the second Labor candidate Ashvini Ambihaipahar. No fuss required.

I don’t know what will happen with the result tonight. The Liberal Party already hold six out of twelve seats, along with an independent ally. Laxale was one of five Labor councillors. So if the Liberal Party win the seat, they will hold an absolute majority, but if Labor retains the seat they will restore the status quo. But there is also the possibility a Liberal councillor could vacate their seat and provide an opportunity for Labor to gain their seat and change who controls the council.

Labor polled 40.4% in the ward in December, with the Liberal Party polling 33.8%. Independent councillor Simon Zhou polled 11.0% while ex-Labor independent Peter Kim polled 10.3%.

Let this be one of the last council by-elections in a large urban council. The government, whether it’s a re-elected Coalition government or a new Labor government, should move to make countbacks universal, for the entire term, from the next election in September 2024. Make by-elections a thing of the past.

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  1. Well the countback system is generally based on a metro party basis where most people are electing – contrary to constitutional intention – a party and not a person (and often see non-residents elected as they were there to make up the group ticket and have relocated etc).

    Single ward count backs generally are on the ‘who’s left’ basis and don’t necessarily produce a desirable outcome but do save election costs.

    But- say I did vote for a councillor on his personal performance rather than party and he resigns and I get some union hack or corporate lawyer who’s sold their soul to a major party donor mob, think I’d rather the by-election to overturn any bad outcomes to date. It removes the punishment retribution element of democratic process.

  2. I don’t see why you would think that the countbacks are “based on a metro party basis”. They are new all over NSW, and they work just as well, arguably better, where the candidates are running individually not as part of a group. If most votes are above the line, the seats will indeed go to the next candidate in the group, but if the vacating candidate is ungrouped, they’ll flow more fluidly.

    In the case of the recent Snowy Monaro countback (which has 11 councillors, and had two groups which won 6 seats between them, with a big ungrouped vote), the candidate elected to fill the vacancy was the person who came closest to winning the original seat. Not some random.

    Anyway I’d be interested in any evidence for the idea that it’s about “who’s left”, considering it’s a new system in NSW.

    Once it’s clear that countbacks are the practice, groups should make sure they preselect people who are welling to fill in, and voters should judge them on that basis.

    That’s a fun hypothetical but if people are voting for a group they’re voting for the group. Below the line voting exists. It’s a far more realistic problem to have cast your vote for a winner, they depart, then your vote the next time is diluted by others who are still represented by the person they elected the first time around.

  3. “But- say I did vote for a councillor on his personal performance rather than party and he resigns and I get some union hack or corporate lawyer who’s sold their soul to a major party donor mob…”

    Then you should’ve voted below-the-line. With preferential voting there is no excuses for this sort of thing.

    Also, you know what else is a failure? Ryde’s ward boundaries.

  4. Given the (so-far) 15% swing towards the Liberal candidate, Justin Li, and 48% primary vote, it’s pretty clear that a count-back system wouldn’t have reflected the very clear democratic wishes of the community.

  5. Yes where you have a pr ballot result a by-election as a single member electorate thwarts the voter intend. Count backs should always be used .

  6. @Natalie If you think that’s a problem, then what you’re really arguing for is that general elections should be held more frequently.

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