Michael McPhail ran for council at age 20, but not many share his interest in local government. (ABC Radio Perth: Emma Wynne)
At Western Australia’s upcoming local council elections, 37 of the 138 jurisdictions won’t hold a vote because all the candidates have been elected unopposed.
- All roles have been filled unopposed at 37 of 138 local governments in Western Australia; all but one are in regional areas
- Voting at council elections is not compulsory in WA, where, on average, just one-third of electors cast a ballot
- Some observers believe not having to face an election can lead to a lack of scrutiny on councillors
Observers say a string of scandals and inquiries and bitter social media disputes have potential candidates thinking twice, and that things need to change to increase engagement in local democracy.
Michael McPhail was just 20 when he ran for East Fremantle council, inspired by his love of town planning which he was studying at university.
“I was pretty young and naïve when I put my hand up; I didn’t really know what I was doing,” he told Jessica Strutt on ABC Radio Perth.
“It turned out the main contender had been there for 50 years and I won by two votes — and his two kids forgot to vote for him, so it shows how fickle and random local democracy can be sometimes.”
Cr McPhail is now 26 and the Deputy Mayor. He said serving on his local council had “unquestionably been the single most life-changing experience I’ve ever had”.
“I’ve learned that I love chairing meetings and I hate long meetings.”
But his passion for local government is a rarity — 37 of WA’s 138 local governments won’t head to the polls this year, as all roles have been filled unopposed.
At the council elections in 2017, a record 1,111 people nominated to stand. This year, there are 964 candidates vying for 378 vacancies.
Councils are far more than roads, rates and rubbish, but most people don’t vote in local elections. (ABC Radio Perth: Emma Wynne)
On average, just one-third of electors will cast a ballot.
In Western Australia, like South Australia and Tasmania, voting in local government elections is not compulsory.
Julie Crews, a business lecturer at Edith Cowan University, told ABC Radio Perth Breakfast that it was a worrying sign for local democracy.
“I call it scandal fatigue. Integrity and trust has been eroded, and we’ve seen that with the City of Perth and their inquiry,” Dr Crews said.
“I think that’s very off-putting, particularly for young people, and by God we need young people in local government.”
She said not having to face an election could lead to a lack of scrutiny on councillors.
“I think you slip under the radar — if no-one’s coming up with an alternative, then the focus is not on you.
“I think when you are scrutinised and you’re accountable and everything is transparent, then you’re more likely to do the right things.”
Lord Mayor Lisa Scaffidi and the City of Perth council is currently suspended and won’t hold elections this year. (ABC News: James Carmody)
Of the 37 local governments not holding elections, only one (the Town of Cambridge) is in the Perth metro area; the others are all small regional councils, and some councillors say not having an election isn’t necessarily a bad sign.
“When there is no election, it can also mean that the community is happy with the people that are representing them,” said Karen Chappel, shire president in Morawa in WA’s Wheatbelt.
“This notion that someone who has been there forever can’t ask a question or think of something new is not valid.”
She said new people were coming onto her council this year as incumbents had decided to retire.
“New blood for just new’s sake is not the answer either.”
Lynne Craigie says that in country areas, councils are looked to for essential services like finding a doctor. (ABC Radio Perth: Emma Wynne)
Lynne Craigie, shire president of East Pilbara council and head of the WA Local Government Association (WALGA), said country councils with small populations could find it hard to attract people who wanted to take on the demanding role of councillor.
“These days, local governments are also looked upon more and more to provide what’s needed by their residents, and that could be in a country area bringing the doctor to hand, providing housing or even wages to subsidise a doctor coming in,” she said.
“Why are local governments doing it? Because there’s no-one else to do it and the residents of screaming for it.”
People in Morawa won’t go to the polls this year as positions have been filled unopposed. (Wikimedia Commons: Bahnfrend/CC0)
In the era of social media, where conflicts can become highly charged online, many people are put off by the perceived negativity.
Kalgoorlie-Boulder council recently voted to allow elected members and staff to access funds for legal action against constituents, citing vitriolic and abusive Facebook comments.
“A lot of people may think about it but then look at the shenanigans that go on and think, ‘No, that’s not for me, I don’t need to subject myself to that’,” Cr Craigie said.
“It’s a very confronting thing to do, to put yourself out there, because at the end of the day, and in a lot of ways, this is a popularity contest.”
Listeners to ABC Radio Perth agreed.
Dale: “I just wonder why anybody would do it to themselves. The backlash and trolling and the social media stuff — why would you put your head up?”
Rob: “All we read about in our community newspapers are fights. There’s no pooling of ideas. It seems people just don’t listen, they shout and abuse each other.”
In Perth’s largest council, the City of Stirling, the race for mayor has turned ugly. (Supplied)
Another common grievance is that voters don’t know who they are voting for.
Unlike other states, political parties do not endorse candidates and there can be a dearth of information for electors, making it hard to determine a candidate’s true priorities.
“When the Local Government Act 1995 was introduced, it required candidates to produce 150-word profiles of themselves,” said Ian Cowie, president of Local Government Professionals WA.
“They tend to all say a version of ‘keep rates low’, ‘love you all’, so you’re not really seeing major policy platforms put forward in those documents, and that makes it so difficult to make a determination.”
“I know it’s a controversial view in local government,” he said.
“I think our local government elections can be very random or they can be swung.”
Things had improved at East Fremantle council since elections had been contested, he said.
“After I was elected and a number of other councillors were elected, we changed the executive, we changed the culture of the place, and we’ve become a lot more engaging and have reached out to people.
“You see the people want to be more involved with something that they see as positive; they don’t want to be involved with division.”