“It’s time for a public review”: Push for election overhaul

By David Schout

City of Melbourne councillors have urged the state government to begin a review into the council’s “unique” electoral system by next year, in time for the 2024 election.

Long considered undemocratic by critics, the City of Melbourne Act 2001 would go under the microscope for the first time in 20 years if the State Government agreed to the review.

Under the current system, residents in the City of Melbourne — which operates under a separate framework to the 78 other Victorian councils — were granted one vote in local government elections, while businesses were entitled to two votes.

A business that rents a desk within the municipality was currently entitled to greater participation than local residents, as well as the chance to run in elections.

Cr Rohan Leppert’s motion at the July 27 council meeting called on the Minister for Local Government Shaun Leane to initiate the review by next year, in order for reforms to be legislated well before the next election in 2024.

He told Southbank News a review was well overdue.

“Time and time again our community has asked for a serious, comprehensive and consultative electoral review,” Cr Leppert said.

“In a democracy we should not be afraid of interrogating the electoral system, especially one as unusual as the City of Melbourne’s … the City of Melbourne Act [2001], including its famously unique electoral system, has not been properly reviewed for over 20 years, whereas the electoral system for the other 78 Victorian Councils was reviewed for the Local Government Act 2020.”

Cr Leppert said the current City of Melbourne Act facilitated a range of undesirable outcomes, including both the richest and “most male” electoral roll in the country, and the only council in Australia that regularly returned a majority of non-resident councillors.

He said that while councillors had different ideas on what electoral reforms should be introduced, they were united on step one.

“Councillors all have different ideas about what the system should be, of course; some are content with the status quo while others like me believe it to be wildly undemocratic. But the thing we could all agree on was that the Act should be reviewed. This system doesn’t belong to councillors, it is a public system, so it’s time for a public review.”

The review would also encompass donation reform across the whole local government sector.

In August last year Lord Mayor Sally Capp wrote to Mr Leane seeking a review of the City of Melbourne Act 2001, after councillors similarly voted in favour of electoral evaluation. 

In response, Mr Leane said it was “a matter I am considering with regard to a future program of legislative reform”.

The latest council push placed greater pressure on the state government to ensure the Act was thoroughly reviewed before the next election in 2024, and had now put time pressure — a 2022 start date — for that to begin. 

“[It] should start no later than next year if that review is going to be done comprehensively and with public involvement,” Cr Leppert said at the July 27 meeting. 

Unlike in NSW, the Victorian Government opted to not delay last year’s election, which took place in October just after Melbourne had been in COVID-19 lockdown for almost four months.

Councillors thanked election manager Bill Lang, and the Victorian Electoral Commission team, for facilitating last year’s election in “extraordinarily difficult circumstances”.

“That [decision] was both very good and very bad for different reasons, and it’s very difficult to have known what to have done in those circumstances,” Cr Leppert said.

“I note that NSW has taken a slightly different tack by extending their elections by a year, but have found that they have needed to extend them by another three months again. So, holding elections in a pandemic is an incredibly difficult thing, and balancing the needs to retain a fully democratic process with the need to keep everyone safe does mean that there are compromises on both sides. In spite of all that, I do think Bill and his team have facilitated a very good process.”

Voter turnout in the 2020 election was 69 per cent within the City of Melbourne, well up from 56 per cent in 2016. 

Deputy Lord Mayor Nicholas Reece said that while the 2020 election had taken place under circumstances “the likes of which Melbourne has never seen before”, the democratic process “had stood up very well”.

“I say to the good folks of New South Wales and New South Wales government, that your democracy has nothing to fear from an election during a pandemic, and during lockdown,” Cr Reece said. 

“Anecdotally, the turnout at our online forums was high and voter engagement was high. If anything, the restrictions we were under encouraged people to take the time to review election material and cast an informed vote.” •

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