Local government elections undemocratic for some, fair and reasonable for others


October 05, 2019 08:16:17

Voting rights based on owning property were last seen in many democracies in the late 19th century, but they live on in most Australian local government elections where even businesses can have a say.

Key points:

  • Resident and non-resident property owners can vote in local government elections in all states except Queensland
  • Local government voting is not compulsory in Western Australia, South Australia and Tasmania, but is compulsory in other states
  • Western Australia is reviewing local government voting as a part of its Local Government Act Review

It is a relic of history that must be corrected, according to Associate Professor Ryan Goss from Australian National University’s College of Law.

“In every state apart from Queensland, you can get votes at local elections by virtue of the fact that you own property or own businesses that own properties,” he said.

“These are undemocratic, out-of-date, anachronistic laws that really have no place in a modern democracy.”

Compulsory preferential voting in Australia (state and federal) is often touted as the pinnacle of modern democracy, but many of us are a bit hazy about what goes on at the local level.

Understanding local government elections is not helped by the rules varying around the country — compulsory or non-compulsory, the frequency of elections, whether a mayor or shire president is directly elected or chosen by councillors, and who gets to vote.

Polls with two rolls

Chris Avent, the acting electoral commissioner for Western Australia, said one of the biggest differences in states like his was that local government elections used two rolls.

“There is the residents’ roll, which is derived from the state roll maintained by the WA Electoral Commission,” he said.

This roll gives any citizen over 18, registered with an address in the area, the right to vote in local government elections, as it does for state and federal elections.

“Then there’s also what’s called the owner/occupier roll,” Mr Avent said.

As its name suggests, this is an electoral roll giving a vote to property owners/occupiers in a local government area.

You need to be on the state and federal electoral rolls, but you do not need to live in the local government area where you own or occupy property to be eligible to vote.

And it is not just for individuals — businesses or body corporates that own or occupy property can nominate two people to go onto the owner/occupier roll.

There is, however, an important limit to the voting rights of owner/occupiers.

“The critical thing is you can’t vote more than once in any given election,” Mr Avent said.

“If I reside in a ward, and I own a shop in that same ward, I can’t vote twice.”

But where a local government electorate is divided into wards, an individual can vote in more than one ward if they own property and reside in different areas.

And a business owning property in a local government area can delegate its two voting rights to people living anywhere in the state.

I pay rates and I vote

Property-based voting rights stem from the roots of local government, Mr Avent said.

“Local governments tended to be roads boards, and people who tended to own property and paid rates to the roads board got to have a vote.”

It is a democratic model that still has currency, according to Property Council of WA executive director Sandra Brewer.

“We think property owners deserve a right to vote in local government elections,” she said.

“If you think about the CBD, which is largely shopping centres and commercial buildings, or perhaps industrial areas where there is a lot of factories and warehouses, the majority of rates collected by those local councils are from the commercial operations or the industrial centres.

“That’s why it is fair and reasonable that they should be able to vote in local government elections.”

She said a similar argument could be made for people and businesses that owned property in regional areas.

“They pay rates, they receive services including rubbish collection, security and safety offered by the local council — they should have some say in how the council is being run.”

But Associate Professor Goss said this was a system that did not reflect modern values.

“We should not be measuring people’s democratic say based on whether they own a property,” he said

“That’s just un-Australian, that is inappropriate in 21st-century Western Australia, and WA should really be getting its act together and following Queensland.”

Under review

The question of how local governments are elected is being examined in Western Australia as a part of the Local Government Act Review.

But just getting people to vote in non-compulsory local elections is the main concern for Duncan Ord, director-general of the Department of Local Governments, Sports and Cultural Industries.

“Historically there’s been quite low levels of involvement of people voting for their local councils,” he said.

“Currently that sits at around 30 per cent, and that’s risen from an average of around 15 per cent after postal voting was introduced.”

A discussion paper produced by the department looks at a range of issues including compulsory voting, the frequency of elections, first-past-the-post versus preferential voting, as well as who has the right to vote.

But any changes to local government elections, which are just a small part of the overall review, are yet to take shape.

“At this stage, government is keen to work on the new proposed Act and make it available for public consultation towards the end of next year,” Mr Ord said.

“At the end of the day, like all pieces of legislation, it will be up to the Parliament to determine ultimately what the Act would look like.”










First posted

October 05, 2019 06:30:00

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