Brisbane City and party appointments


I often compare the City of Brisbane to a small state parliament. With its single-member wards dominated by parties and its large size, it often resembles a state election more so than a local council. But one of the main differences between the City and most state elections is the method of filling vacancies on the council when a seat falls vacant during the term.

In most of Australia, single-member electorate vacancies are filled via by-election. Another small election is held just in that one electorate. But in Brisbane, that doesn’t apply in the final year of a council term.

The City of Brisbane has a rule whereby any vacancy in the first three years of the council term results in a by-election, but any vacancy in the final year allows the party of the former councillor to appoint a replacement.

This method has been abused by all parties on the council to give new candidates the benefits of incumbency leading into an election.

In one sense this is not unique – there are other examples of local democracy where councils are allowed to dispense with by-elections and leave a seat vacant when they are within the last 18 months of a term. It’s particularly strange that this approach is used in NSW alongside countbacks, since the cost of a countback is minimal.

While by-elections are far from ideal for multi-member electorates due to producing imbalanced representation (and sometimes a disproportionate cost and effort when, say, a whole council must vote to replace a single councillor), it remains best practice for single-member electorates. The whole electorate is left without representation, so it’s fair to come together to replace someone together.

In one sense, you could defend a party appointment as a cheap and easy method that maintains the political balance of the council, but it produces a perverse incentive, since it allows a party to parachute a new candidate into a council ward as an incumbent without having to face the voters. And what do you know, that’s exactly what the parties in Brisbane are doing.

I’ve analysed how often councillors retire from Brisbane City dating back to 2004, either at the election or before the election.

In the most recent term, seven out of 26 councillors retired prior to the end of their terms: four LNP councillors, two Labor councillors, and the sole Greens councillor.

Every single one of those councillors chose to quit in the last year, depriving their electors of the chance to choose their replacement. None of them chose to retire at the end of their term. All 26 incumbent councillors are running for re-election, but only 19 of them have been in their job since 2020.

The chart above shows that this trend has been accelerating for two decades. Party appointments haven’t filled more than three seats per term in 2004, 2008, 2012 or 2016, but replaced six councillors in 2020. This included the bizarre example of Ryan Murphy, who had served seven years representing the LNP in the marginal ward of Doboy before he quit his ward in 2019 to take the much safer ward of Chandler, which had been vacated by new lord mayor Adrian Schrinner. Murphy thus created a second casual vacancy in his old ward, and was able to contest his new ward as an incumbent.

By-elections have always been rare. There were two by-elections in the 2004-2008 term after LNP councillors won state seats. A third by-election was triggered in Walter Taylor in 2010 when the incumbent councillor jumped to the federal seat of Ryan. The only by-election not triggered by a councillor winning a higher office was when former Labor leader Shayne Sutton retired in 2017.

While by-elections used to be rare, it used to be quite common that councillors would see out their full term. Four councillors retired at the 2016 election without invoking the party appointment method of giving their successor a head start.

Why is this bad? Partly because these new councillors have no democratic mandate. An option for party appointment could be justified in multi-member wards where you can’t hold a by-election just for the voters who had voted for the vacating representative (although even then countbacks are more democratic and preferable). But secondly, the benefits of incumbency are substantial and should only be given to those who have already been voted in. I don’t have exact figures, but I know that BCC councillors have staff, a platform and funds to communicate with their constituents, all of which help them win re-election. That benefit shouldn’t go to those who haven’t won a mandate.

It’s also totally unnecessary. I doubt many of those councillors who have resigned right before an election wouldn’t have been capable of finishing their term, if there wasn’t such a convenient method of handing over your ward. While there may be a few more by-elections without the party appointment alternative, most of those retiring councillors would just see out their term.

While I was calculating these numbers, I also looked at how incumbent councillors have performed at past elections.

Generally most incumbents have been re-elected. The main exception was in 2008, when four councillors were defeated and another four retired. At this election, the Liberal National Party increased its numbers from nine to sixteen as Campbell Newman won a second term as Lord Mayor. It also saw a substantial redistribution which left two councillors without a ward – one retired and another was defeated after contesting a new ward against another incumbent.

One incumbent lost their seat in 2012 (when Ryan Campbell won Doboy off Labor), and ex-LNP independent Kate Richards was defeated for re-election in 2020.

The LNP now holds a lot of seats by quite small margins, but have continued to increase their share of seats from eight in 2000 to 19 in 2016 and 2020. This election could see incumbents lose their seats in numbers not seen since 2008 if there is any swing to the left.

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  1. Good points.

    I think in every field there will always be someone scheming up ways and means to exploit rules and gain advantages and this is just another in a long list of exploitations.

    As a democrat I always go for the most democratic means to construct the “system”. What is the point of having preferential voting, if you don’t use it as intended? If your No 1 candidate steps aside for any reason – then the No 2 candidate should automatically step into the position. What is so magical about it being the last year of the term that this particular rule should apply? The only practical reason I see it being applied as is – is as a cost saving measure ahead of an inevitable election. But as you point out it given the ring in a hand up and the electorate has no say in say in who that person should be. You might get the “Deagon Deviation” stepping into the breach.

  2. What you’re describing there is a countback. And that works great in multi-member electorates. But it doesn’t work in a single-member electorate because each party only runs one candidate, so any vacancy would result in a change in the political balance. Better to go back to the voters and ask them again.

  3. I don’t have much of a problem with the replacement within a year of an election in single seat electorates, because while the federal and Queensland lower house systems regard voters as having given a mandate to an individual candidate, the reality is most voters are choosing the party. While the occasional elected politician who ditches a major party manages to get re-elected afterwards (Nicole Johnston, Bob Katter), there are more who don’t (Kate Richards, Jason Costigan, Steve Dickson). So the party should control the seat.

    Although, I’d rather have multi-member electorates with countbacks, definitely the neatest system.

  4. Wilson, I think the problem is that running as an incumbent (even an appointed one) does have some advantage as the party can build or retain some of their established brand in the local area compared to having an open seat contest.

    I have read some analysis covering US elections, where many states have an ‘appointment’ rule for the US Senate that allows a Senator departing midterm to be replaced by a new member from their same party.

    Research has shown appointed senators generally have a better chance of holding their seat for their party compared to if their seat was vacant at election time.

  5. Yes parties dominate, but I don’t see why that’s a reason to give them even more control.

    I don’t see any evidence that these councillors were incapable of finishing their term. They should see out their term and let the voters decide.

    “while the federal and Queensland lower house systems regard voters as having given a mandate to an individual candidate, the reality is most voters are choosing the party”

    Are you arguing the same rule should apply to state and federal elections? Or are you saying that there’s something different about the party politics of Brisbane City?

  6. Applying this logic to the BCC election, the contests in Paddington and Walter Taylor are seen as toss-up contests (close calls that could go either way) with appointed LNP incumbents. However, both would be considered easy gains for the Greens if they were vacant.

  7. Would it make more sense to either:

    * Leave the seat vacant
    * Disqualify any appointed member from standing in the subsequent election, e.g. they are legitimately fill ins.

  8. Yes, agree Labor Voter. I think some US States that have these appointment laws have it spelt out such that any appointed senator cannot then run in a subsequent by-election or general election.

  9. Ben Raue,

    > Yes parties dominate, but I don’t see why that’s a reason to give them even more control.

    You mentioned a democratic mandate above. If voters habitually give their mandate to a party over the individual candidate, then there’s no democratic reason to not give them more control until the next election.

    > Are you arguing the same rule should apply to state and federal elections? Or are you saying that there’s something different about the party politics of Brisbane City?

    I don’t really care. They’re all inferior systems until they move to multi-member electorates. I simply don’t have an issue with the practice in Brisbane as is, because on the balance of probabilities, the mandate rests with the party over the individual candidate. Addressing the practice in Brisbane while keeping single-member electorates is putting lipstick on a pig.

  10. Wilson, I would argue that by having parties use the appointment rule to circumvent the loss of a member during retirement, it gives them an unfair advantage by having a pseudo incumbent for the seat.

    Many recent elections, particularly the 2023 NSW election, showed that swings in open seats are more significant because they do not have a popular incumbent to defend them.

  11. Had the Liberals in NSW been allowed to use this appointment rule to replace some of their popular incumbents like Geoff Lee (Parramatta) and Kevin Connolly (Riverstone), those seats may not have swung as hard and could have been retained instead of being lost to Labor.

  12. Yoh An, the operative word there is “popular”. How much name recognition, let alone popularity, does a councillor gain in less than 12 months? I predict that all the early departures won’t change any results anyway. Paddington and Walter Taylor will still fall to the Greens anyway, and the rest will still stay with their current parties. We’ll see if I’m right.

  13. Just a slight correction Ben. It isn’t a Brisbane City Council rule, it’s a State Government one under the Local Government Act and the City of Brisbane Act. The only distinction is that Brisbane is almost the only LGA where Councillors run as party endorsed candidates, although historically that hasn’t always been the case.
    And while the ALP and LNP are now vehemently against running endorsed candidates outside of Brisbane, that isn’t the case with minor parties such as the Greens, KAP and One Nation.
    Because of the multiplicity of voting systems in Queensland Local Government elections there are instances where a countback could be used. However, in races with only two candidates a countback after the seat was vacated would result in a perverse outcome. And in the increasingly large number of uncontested seats a countback is not possible.
    The only rule that specifically applies to Brisbane is for vacancies that occur in the first 12 months of a term – Councils have the option to decide whether to hold a by-election or to appoint the runner-up; Brisbane must hold a by-election.

  14. So how could you do party appointments in a non-partisan council?

    Countbacks doesn’t make any sense under any of the electoral systems used in Queensland.

  15. @Mark Yore actually in some councils in Sydney and Newcastle and the surrounding area (Central Coast, Illawarra, the Blue Mountains and the Hawkesbury) there are Labor, Liberal and Greens candidates who are officially endorsed. In Brisbane it’s LNP, Labor, Greens.

  16. But there are still independents who are members of political parties in councils nationwide. For example, in the Port Macquarie-Hastings Council, the Mayor (Peta Pinson) ran as an independent but is a member of the National Party.

    In Queensland it is legally required for councillors to provide a register of interests which is publicly accessible on any council website. This is where you can find party affiliations of independent councillors, if they are members of any party. For example, the Gold Coast City Council has an independent Mayor (Tom Tate) who is a member of the LNP, along with a council that is equally split between independents who are aligned with the LNP and independents who are unaligned. Therefore, while the LNP and Labor don’t officially endorse candidates for local elections other than elections for the Brisbane City Council or for Lord Mayor of Brisbane, they do have councillors who were elected as independents, and Gold Coast City Council is technically LNP-controlled counting the LNP-aligned Mayor and 50% of the councillors are LNP-aligned.

    Former LNP leader Lawrence Springborg is still affiliated with the LNP, and is currently serving as the Mayor of the Goondiwindi Region (he was elected unopposed in 2020 and again in 2024).

  17. @Nether Portal, sorry about that – I was referring just to Queensland. In this election the Greens are the only party to endorse candidates outside of Brisbane. Also with respect to party affiliation, we have the situation where two members of the ALP are running for the Mayoralty in Logan – former Federal Member Brett Raguse and serving councillor Jon Raven. If candidates were endorsed for the LNP or ALP in seats like this it would require a preselection and then an expulsion if the losing candidate decided to run.

    @Ben Raue – there are two voting systems (of the four) that would allow countbacks to be used. The first is the monstrosity that is Ipswich (multi-member, first past-the-post) which is the only system that would have allowed Paul Tully to get elected on 21.88%; the second are Councils like Mackay (single division, first-past-the-post) which just selects the top ten finishers, ranging from 6.21% to 4.79%. If someone left midway then the next highest person at 4.75% would be appointed to fill the balance of the term (if they wanted to).

    Also where Council can opt to select a replacement Councillor instead of a by-election (after the end of the first year and before the start of the last year) sometimes Councils have chosen a candidate on the recommendation of the departing Councillor, sometimes they’ve done interviews and selected people based on how well they ‘fit’, sometimes they try and keep the existing balance of the Council and sometimes they literally draw a name from a hat.

    @everyone else For those who don’t like party involvement in local government, some of the scariest councils I’ve run across were composed of people who had no understanding of the basics of the job they applied for. Also there are quite a few occasions where Councillors are elected, find out they don’t understand or like the job and realise that their view of what they thought they could do as a Councillor bears no relationship to reality. They’re the last people you want doing the job.

  18. @Ben Raue Just a couple of minor additions Ben. Ryan Murphy moved on the back of a Council redistribution as well as the vacancy in Chandler. Shayne Sutton’s situation was unique – her husband held a senior State Government position and took up a promotion in North Queensland so she went with him.

    The problem with multi-member electorates is that you end up with everyone trying to run the ‘sexiest’ parts and ignore the rest of the area. Using Whitsunday Regional Council as an example, we’d end up with three representatives in Airlie Beach and the Islands, and three in Bowen. I can guarantee Proserpine and Collinsville wouldn’t feel any love at all and the Councillors wouldn’t have any sense of attachment to the area. Bowen and Airlie are where the numbers are and where the growth is.

    If you take six boxes and put a cat into each of the boxes you end up with happy cats. If you put three cats each into two boxes then it just gets chaotic. You could reach an agreement with each of the Councillors that they concentrate on separate areas, but all you’ve done is produce a workaround that takes it back to the original system.

    Getting back to Mackay and it’s multi-member, it’s hard getting any of the current Councillors to look at the northern parts of the Council at Bloomsbury and Midge Point because it’s always someone else’s problem.

  19. Mark, I would say for regional and rural councils like the Whitsunday example – a better option is to simply elect the required number of councillors (like 5-10) at large without subdividing into wards. This is the system that is used for many councils in rural nsw and Victoria.

  20. Dividing into wards can be problematic as you indicated because some areas will feel under-represented (like in Dubbo, nsw – which had four wards allocated to Dubbo itself and only one that covered adjacent towns like Wellington).

  21. @Yoh An And I know exactly what will happen, based on the hurt feelings and the demographics. Bowen will elect 3 Councillors and Airlie Beach will elect 3 Councillors with a toss up on who the mayor will be. Every Council decision will be 4-3 based entirely around which area has the numbers. Collinsville, Proserpine and the smaller towns won’t see a single cent of expenditure.

    How do I know this? In 2017 I put in a submission to the Redistribution Committee that fixed a whole stack of accessibility issues that required people to drive through other divisions to get to the other side of Division 4. Basically Community Of Interest was non-existent. The majority of complaints were about taking a division away from Bowen so Bowen wouldn’t be in charge.

    Looking back on it now it would have made more sense when Councils were being amalgamated to put Airlie and Proserpine into Mackay, Collinsville into Isaac and Bowen into Burdekin.

    Multiply that by scores of other Councils in the same boat post-amalgamation. I think it’s difficult for those outside Queensland to grasp exactly how big some of these Councils are. There are three Queensland Councils with a bigger population than Tasmania.

  22. @Yoh An, quite a lot of QLD councils are undivided, but they don’t use PR. Instead they use a version of the bloc vote, which is even worse.

  23. The Brisbane City Council desperately needs an Electoral Reform by either changing to full preferential voting or a Hare-Clark type of system

  24. “The problem with multi-member electorates is that you end up with everyone trying to run the ‘sexiest’ parts and ignore the rest of the area.”

    You can’t compare how multi-member electorates work with bloc vote as in Queensland (the worst electoral system I’ve ever encountered) compared to a proper PR system. Of course a majoritarian system will see councillors focus on the majority and ignore the rest.

    I think any reforms for QLD local government need to take inspiration from other states. There is nothing of value to be found within the state’s existing electoral systems.

  25. it’s even worse that the current Ipswich council dual-member bloc-vote system was only introduced 5 years ago after a review which I have to assume had no one with any knowledge of electoral systems involved.

  26. @Babaluma isn’t Ipswich the only council in Queensland with multi-member wards? Single-member wards seem to be widespread across almost all of the warded councils in Queensland. Compare this to NSW where the last single-member wards were in the City of Botany Bay in southeastern Sydney which was abolished in 2016. 2012 was the last time any NSW council elected single-member wards (and it was just Botany Bay that did, and Labor retained the mayoralty and all five wards quite easily).


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