By Shane Scanlan
Melbourne votes for a new lord mayor this month, but the winner won’t necessarily be the most popular.
Without the dominant figure of Robert Doyle in the race (with 45 per cent of the primary vote in 2016), the field is wide open and the prize is likely to be claimed by the candidate who organises the best flow of preferences.
It is even possible that the eventual winner could poll the least number of primary votes. There is a current Melbourne councillor whose team in 2016 received just 1534 votes.
Voting within the City of Melbourne is unlike any other municipality. Its special electoral system has morphed and evolved from a desire from both Labor and Coalition state governments to prevent the capital city council falling into the hands of local, parochial interests.
But is it fair? Is it democratic? Is it corrupt? It is certainly unique.
To start with, Melbourne has the lowest level of voter participation. In 2016, ballots were received from only 55 per cent of eligible voters. Eligibility in Melbourne is broader than anywhere else, which goes someway to explain the poor turnout.
While the city in 2016 had an estimated residential population of 148,000, only 54,791 were on the state electoral roll.
A further 77,939 voters were on the City of Melbourne’s roll which, combined, added up to 133,801 eligible voters (before 1607 additions and 536 deletions).
The numbers show there were tens of thousands of residents who were not enrolled. And, no doubt, there were plenty of enrolled voters who did not even know they were required to vote.
But there are also other factors to explain the poor participation rate of two years ago.
Does anyone maintain faith these days that a correctly-stamped item entrusted to Australia Post will reach its destination?
City of Melbourne elections are run purely as a postal ballot. And ballots have to run the postal system gauntlet twice – once from the Victorian Electoral Commission (VEC) to the voter and again on the return journey.
This system is open to routine abuse. Stories abound of theft of ballots from letter boxes on the day they arrive. And hundreds, if not thousands, are discarded (to be harvested by others) by residents who receive mail addressed to a previously-correctly-enrolled voter.
And, because the VEC does not have matching signatures from actual enrolled voters, there is no way of validating that the ballots being received are genuine.
On top of all this potential abuse, ballots destined for absentee landlords are routinely sent in bulk to real estate agents acting on their behalf. No audit is conducted about what happens to these ballots.
Much is made of the unique situation in Melbourne, where corporations are given two votes, whereas residents are restricted to one. Supporters of this anomaly justify it on the basis of the percentage of commercial rates underpinning the council’s operations.
Critics say it just isn’t fair. But this cuts both ways. Up to two residential renters per property can apply to be added to the council roll – and they don’t even have to be Australian citizens. The only prerequisite is that they had lived at the address for a month before applications closed (March 16). No proof of occupancy is required.
Dummies and stooges
Like other Victorian municipal elections, candidates routinely enlist others to direct preferences their way.
As in the past, voters can expect to select from candidates whose sole role is to attract or block votes that may have otherwise flowed to an opponent.
The Greens are the only major political party to officially endorse candidates in local government elections. Labor and Liberal interests are unofficial. But they are there in the mix.
Motivations of parties and candidates vary. For Labor, blocking Greens influence in the inner city is high on the list. Last time around, Robert Doyle was supported by Labor as a brake on Greens’ ambition.
The successful candidate will be the one who does the best preference deals. For the voters and the candidates, it’s a lottery.