Good, bad and ugly ward redistributions in NSW


The process of redrawing local council wards for next year’s New South Wales council elections is now quite advanced, with the councils due for a change having mostly decided on draft boundaries and put them out for public commentary, ahead of an early October deadline.

Unfortunately there’s no centralised process of recording these proposals, so I have spent some time going through council websites pulling together information on what is happening.

In this post I’m summarising the changes of interest, but also go through some of the problems caused by this process being delegated to individual councils rather than being run directly by the Electoral Commission.

This is a long post, and I run through a bunch of issues I’ve found where I don’t think the councils have done the best job of reviewing their ward boundaries. Ultimately I think a lot of this is evidence that this process should be taken away from councils and given to the Electoral Commission to manage, as is done in a number of other states.

This process is not entirely free of rules. I ran through this a bit in my previous blog post on this topic. Councils are obligated to redraw their wards if the difference between the wards with the highest and lowest enrolment is more than 10% prior to the previous election, and that 10% gap remains one year after that election. This doesn’t stop councils from redrawing their wards even if they are not obligated to do so on a numeric basis, but either way the new wards must also have a gap of less than 10%.

The NSWEC has asked councils to submit their final ward boundaries by October 5, although in a handful of councils it looks like they will be late in submitting those final boundaries. After a council decided on a ward map, it is obligated to put up that ward map on public exhibition for 28 days, with a total period of 42 days for receiving submissions, before the proposal comes back to the council for a final decision.

Only one council has already returned to the topic following the submissions – that of Ballina, which I will get to later.

There are 47 councils in NSW which use wards. Two others – Dubbo and Walcha – passed referendums in 2021 abolishing their wards, which is handy since the existing wards were seriously in need of a redraw.

Of those 47, I’ve identified 16 where the council has passed new ward boundaries. 13 of these were required to do so by law. In the other three – Lane Cove, Fairfield and Ryde – the ward boundaries currently deviate by more than 10%, but did not do so prior to the last election, so by my reading of the legislation they would have been fine to leave their wards alone. Indeed my reading of the staff reports in Fairfield and Ryde make me think the staff have misread the legislation and believed their council was obligated to change when they were not. But good on them for making the change anyway.

The other thirteen are: Ballina, Bayside, Blacktown, Camden, Cessnock, Lake Macquarie, Maitland, Murray River, Parramatta, Port Stephens, Ryde, Shellharbour, Tenterfield, The Hills. I have acquired copies of all the maps for these councils which theoretically makes it possible to update my ward map. For now I’m going to leave this as something to do once the Voice referendum has concluded.

There are two others where I couldn’t find any evidence of a change which I think were due to hold one. Georges River was already 12.8% out of line as of November 2021, and is now 14.7% out of line. I don’t understand how that council can avoid redrawing its wards. Waverley was 9.956% out of line as of November 2021, so it is plausible that they just narrowly avoided the legal obligation. But (as will be explored later) it’s also possible that this is just a matter of these councils doing a poor job of fulfilling their obligations.

Another five councils have definitively passed a motion to maintain their existing wards. Unfortunately there were another 23 councils which don’t appear to have considered the issue. I assume there have been no change here, but it was quite tedious going through a year’s worth of council minutes proving a negative.

So how do these ward boundaries look? I won’t go through them exhaustively. Generally if your council is undergoing a change, they have a page for public exhibition which links to the map. If you can’t find them, let me know and I’ll send you the link I found. In many cases people might have specific local objections, but I won’t claim to have such a detailed knowledge of each councils.

But I wanted to draw attention to a disappointing trend I’ve noticed in at least five councils.

In my previous post I identified that quite a lot of the councils with the biggest ward deviations were outer suburban councils which have been taking on the bulk of the state’s population growth. Generally that growth is not evenly distributed, meaning that one or two wards are growing much faster than the rest of the council.

Someone drawing a map to address this inequality can go down one of two paths: they can either make the smallest possible changes to fit the 10% rule, and thus leave the fast-growing wards with as many voters as is legally possible, and leave the wards mostly alone. If you take this approach, continued population growth will make that gap wider, potentially exceeding 10% before we even reach the September 2024 election. Forget about having wards that could last two elections (although in some cases this might be impossible).

Alternatively, they could make maximum changes and draw the fast-growing wards at the lowest permissible enrolment. This leaves room for growth and gives the best chance that the wards will actually be equally-sized at the time of the election.

Sadly I have identified five councils which have taken the easy first path. In all five cases they have made relatively mild changes that leave the fast-growing ward(s) as relatively high population.

Blacktown is the worst case – the fastest-growing Ward 1 has been drawn 9.89% larger than the smallest ward, with the other fast-growing ward (Ward 5) also drawn above average (9.11%). These numbers were based on enrolment as of March 2023, so I expect that this map has already violated the 10% rule based on the most recent data.

In Bayside council, the two wards covering the former Botany Bay council area were both about 17% larger than the smallest ward as of June. While these wards have been reduced in size, they still remain above average.

In Shellharbour, the western Ward A is 2.1% larger than the smallest ward. This one is not as dramatic, but I’d argue Ward A should’ve been the smallest ward, considering that (as of June 2023), the existing Ward A was 27% larger than the smallest ward, while the other two wards were similar to the smallest ward in enrolment.

In Parramatta, the existing Rosehill ward is 17% more populous than the smallest ward. About half of the population growth in Parramatta over the last six years has been concentrated in the Olympic Park peninsula. At one point my calculations showed that there had been a 60% increase in enrolments on the peninsula from 2017 until early 2023, compared to just 6% for the remainder of the LGA. There is no reason to think this faster growth rate will even out in the next few years.

Rosehill has been reduced in size, but not as dramatically as could have been possible. The new Rosehill ward on the draft boundaries would be the second-largest ward, 4% larger than the smallest ward. Rosehill is bound to shoot past the 10% rule before you know it.

Finally, most of the growth in the Camden council area has been concentrated in the North ward, as I chronicled in 2021. The existing North ward is 39% more populous than the South ward.

The redistribution brings the North ward very close to the other two wards, but it’s still 4% more populous than the South ward. That gap will only increase. You could cut another 1,000 voters out of Camden if you try and draw the other two wards of a similar enrolment.

I should give a quick shout-out to the Hills and Fairfield council staff who have drawn boundaries which seem to take account of growth rates and have drawn the fastest-growing wards to be substantially smaller.

These aren’t the only issues we’ve seen with councils’ management of this process. There have also been some failures by councils taking too long to get on with their job, and in one case there appears to have been an attempt at partisan gerrymandering.

In the case of Parramatta, Cessnock and Shellharbour, it looks like the council won’t be able to meet the October 5 deadline imposed by the NSW Electoral Commission. Parramatta’s submissions close on October 10, Cessnock’s close on October 9, and Shellharbour’s close on October 3. This doesn’t factor in time for the council to then consider the submissions and make a final decision. There certainly isn’t time for the council to potentially make changes to the boundaries!

The NSWEC published a circular outlining the procedure in early June – that’s four months notice. Yet there were at least seven councils which didn’t get around to considering the issue until August. Parramatta only bothered on August 28. It’s just not good enough.

But there’s one council which has stood out for a bad process.

Ballina council first dealt with their ward boundaries in February, almost four months before any other council. Their exhibition period was held in July and August, and the council revisited the issue on August 24.

The original proposal moved parts of B ward to both A ward and C ward. There was a proposed amendment from the mayor and one other councillor to postpone the decision, but it was defeated 6-2, with two councillors missing.

When the issue came back to the August 24 meeting, a motion was proposed to extend the redistribution further. In addition to the previous changes, the motion suggested swapping a more significant areas between A and B wards. This change unified East Ballina in B ward while the remainder of Ballina is in A ward.

The existing Ballina wards have a deviation of 12.6%. The first draft reduced this gap to 3%, whereas the second proposal would bring that gap back up to 7.7%. The second proposal on its own would move 7% of the council’s electors to slightly widen the deviation.

The motion to change the ward boundaries at the August 24 meeting was passed with a 5-5 vote, with the mayor delivering her casting vote in favour. The following week (August 31) the opposing councillors brought a rescission motion, which was defeated 5-4. Every councillor stuck to their original vote, with one of the opponents absent.

It’s not clear if there is time to implement the second set of boundaries. I think they are technically obliged to start another 42-day period for submissions, which would only be possible if the NSWEC grant an extension. They may not do so when the council already has a set of perfectly good wards.

I won’t comment on whether the first or second set of boundaries are a more sensible set of boundaries. There have been accusations that the second boundaries are an attempt at gerrymandering. It’s harder to do that sort of thing with multi-member wards, but I am not in a position to judge if that would be the effect of the boundaries.

Whatever the effect, it’s really not a good look to have a council split down the middle between two sets of electoral boundaries at the last minute.

All through this article I’ve been laying out a bunch of evidence for taking the power over wards away from local councils.

When boundaries need to be redrawn at a federal and state level, that process is not put in the hands of politicians – it is handed to an independent commission. They take submissions and draw boundaries, then hear more feedback before making a final decision.

Political parties and members of parliament can make submissions, but they don’t make the final decision.

In New South Wales, councillors have shown themselves to not be trusted to draw their own electoral boundaries. I also think it shows that council staff shouldn’t be required to do this job on a one-off basis: a lot of the proposed maps are too biased in favour of leaving boundaries alone rather than keeping up population changes, and in some cases have been tardy in getting around to doing this important job.

Victoria, Queensland, South Australia and the Northern Territory all have independent ward boundary review processes, while Tasmania has no wards. Only New South Wales and Western Australia has a process managed by the council itself.

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  1. I wonder if NSW councils in addition to having a centralised redistribution process managed by the state electoral commission could also do with a requirement for wards to be drawn within 5% of a projected enrolment quota similar to state and federal redistributions.

    That way, it would force all fast-growing areas/wards to be drawn towards the lower end of tolerance and enable boundaries to last longer (hopefully more than one election cycle).

  2. You are spot on about Shellharbour. Ward A Albion park/calderwood is growing much faster – the councillors know as they approve all the new developments out there. And there is more to come over the next three years. Poor old traffic jammed (except at mid night) Ward A where the labor majority await a town bypass since 2010 but have been locked up in Ward’s Nowra/Kiama seat while Berry got its bypass and Nowra got its new bridge. Interestingly they rectified the problem in the other growthish ward – Ward C at Shellcove. In Council this is all about the current leadership & previous leadership who are all located in old Shellharbour close to the beaches and historical amenities.

  3. Queensland works well with an independent boundary umpire. Whitsunday Regional Council supported the existing (very odd) boundaries at the last redistribution despite going against the basic principles of community of interest. Fortunately the ECQ decided in favour of a more sensible submission.
    That doesn’t mean the ECQ does everything correctly – the 2017 State redistribution was an incoherent mess, mostly due to last-minute changes introduced by the ECQ.
    While there are often AEC boundary changes I disagree with, their approach has always been professional and well-considered. At the last JSCEM Inquiry I again argued for the AEC to manage all electoral matters – Federal, State and Local. It would also spread out the workload for the AEC.

  4. Roger – can’t seriously be blaming Ward here. The Labor council has blocked building the Albion Park bypass (Tripoli Way) as former Labor state member lives in the way of the proposed upgrades. Only progress we’ve seen is since the independent got onto council. Finally allowing the NSW government to invest for the upgrade.

    I doubt Minns and Labor will provide the funding needed to update the road. Labor has ignored the Illawarra and taken it for granted – deeming it too safe to lose their seats. Only the Ward + Liberals have the track record of infrastructure delivery by delivering the Albion Park Rail bypass.

  5. Stew Rockdale – you can’t be serious who gave you this story? State labor campaigned for the by pass in 2023 and 2019. Funds have now been promised by Minns even though he did not win Kiama. Please identify former state Labor member who lives in way of upgrade. Former “Labor” council was actually backed by current independent (ex Liberal – left with gareth ward) deputy mayor who also supported her in 2021 popular mayor election. So hard to understand your point. You may be right that apparently former labor Mayor (now expelled) Saleba wasn’t keen on bypass – that was part of the point that I was making about the coastal centric nature of the old guard.

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