By Shane Scanlan
October seems a long way off, but tensions are rising over this year’s City of Melbourne council elections.
The first skirmish of a probably-protracted war took place at the Future Melbourne Committee meeting on February 16 over voting methodology.
The battle-lines didn’t take long to form up – with Team Doyle and fellow “business” councillors Stephen Mayne and Ken Ong using their dominant numbers to slap down the four “residential” Green and Labor councillors.
A seven to four voting pattern is likely to become the norm on electoral matters from here on in. On the “business” side of the fence are councillors Doyle, Riley, Wood, Louey, Pinder-Mortimer (Team Doyle), Mayne and Ong. On the “resident” side are Greens councillors Oke and Leppert and ALP-aligned councillors Foster and Watts.
So far, only councillors Doyle, Oke and Leppert have declared their intention to contest the October 22 election.
Melbourne’s uniquely complex electoral system has been designed and refined by successive state governments over decades to prevent a “ratbag” element (of whatever colour) getting its hands on the prize capital city council.
The primary tools employed are an unsubdivided municipality and granting each business two votes while residents are restricted to one. Apologists of the system claim legitimacy by equating representation with relative rate contribution.
Giving voters a choice of either posting their ballots or dropping them into a box at a polling booth, would appear to give little advantage to either business or residential interests.
Nevertheless, on February 16 business councillors resisted a pitch by residential councillors to add attendance voting as an option to the currently-exclusive postage voting method.
Choice of voting system is the only decision that councils can take in relation to the conduct of their elections.
In advocating a choice, Cr Rohan Leppert predicted that the declining standards of Australia Post delivery times, coupled with the fact that in 2012 some 4335 ballot papers arrived late, would result in 10,000 ballots arriving after the October 21 cut-off date.
“We can’t guarantee that there’s a one-day turn-around for the majority of our voters,” Cr Leppert said.
Cr Stephen Mayne had earlier said: “Frankly I find advocacy for attendance voting a very sectional position to benefit the residential section of the voter roll and quite disrespectful of, and disenfranchising of, the other segments, which are uniquely important in a capital city council.”
Despite 40 per cent of enrolled voters failing to vote in 2012, Cr Mayne said: ““It seemed to work very well. It does achieve higher turn-out rates and, obviously suits our unique role with a lot of off-shore and interstate and corporate interests.”
And while voting methodology may be contentious, what is far more important for the opposing camps is getting their constituents enrolled before August 26.
City of Melbourne residents, in particular, aren’t particularly interested in voting in local government elections. If they did, they could dominate the vote, despite the gerrymander against them.
In 2012, only 43,789 residents were enrolled to vote at a time when the residential population was around 110,000. As such, they comprised just 40.3 per cent of the total 108,434 enrolments.
There are now 124,000 residents in the municipality, but the council is not compelled to make sure they are on the roll. On the other hand, if a corporation fails to nominate its two voting representatives, the council is obliged by law to enroll company officers from Australian Securities and Investment Commission records. This provision does not apply to any other Victorian municipality.
This month the council will start a three-month door-knocking census of businesses in CBD, Docklands, Southbank and St Kilda Rd to ensure eligible businesses are enrolled.
It does send letters to residential addresses which are absent from the Victorian Electoral Commission’s database and, in 2012, sent 26,109 such letters. However, this exercise only netted 2000 extra residents to the council’s roll.
Cr Leppert complains that the business component of the council’s voter roll is far more accurate than the residential component.
Residents don’t have to be Australian citizens and need only have lived in the municipality for a month to be able to vote.
Should the estimated 112,000 residents of voting age sign up, the 2017 Melbourne City Council could have a very different composition.