By Shane Scanlan
Residential interests may dominate the next Melbourne City Council if the Coalition wins the 2018 state election.
On April 1, the Victorian Liberal Party’s State Council called on a future Coalition government to “adopt in full” Petro Georgiou’s 2014 recommendations for local government reform.
Most significantly for the City of Melbourne, Mr Georgiou’s Local Government Electoral Review report recommended:
22.01 –An end to a gerrymander, which awards two votes to businesses while residents get a single vote; and
An election donation cap of $1000 per team member.
Many candidates at last October’s Melbourne municipal election reported no electoral donations while, at the other end of the scale, the victorious, nine-member Team Doyle reported receiving $314,400 (about $35,000 per team member).
Former councillor Ken Ong’s Together Melbourne team reported donations equivalent to $15,482 per team member and Phil Cleary’s team received $12,650 per team member. The Greens reported donations of $15,067.09 (or $2152 for each of its seven-member team).
The current Melbourne City Council can be roughly characterised as having seven business councillors (six Team Doyle plus Cr Philip Le Liu) versus four community councillors (two Greens, Cr Jackie Watts and Cr Nicholas Frances Gilley).
At the moment, residents have about 42 per cent of the vote within the City of Melbourne, with non-residents enjoying the lion’s share with 58 per cent.
Of the non-resident number, about 43 per cent are landlords and 15 per cent are businesses. Both of these groups can be granted two votes each under the current system – automatically in the case of businesses and also in cases of dual ownership of non-resident property.
It is highly likely that the resident/non-residential voting mix could swing in favour of residents if the Georgiou reforms were adopted, however his recommendations support giving voting rights to multiple owners of individual properties.
But the more significant reform would be to limit election donations – as this would severely dent the advantage held by well-funded campaigns. Currently, the only way to communicate with the significant (and growing) non-resident landlord group of voters is via post.
At last year’s election, non-resident landlords were allocated 57,323 votes. So, at Australia Post prices, a single mail-out could, for the first time, be beyond even the budgets of the best-funded teams in 2020.
Liberal Party local government spokesperson David Davis downplayed the State Council resolution, saying the party would firstly wait and see what came out of the government’s current local government review.
But Cr Jackie Watts did not hold back, saying: “The current electoral system is unrepresentative, unreliable and undemocratic. All that is needed is the political will to reform it by making municipal elections consistent across the state.”
She called for an end to postal-voting-only at Melbourne elections, to better align with state and federal elections.
Cr Watts also criticised the performance of the Victorian Electoral Commission (VEC) in conducting the election.
“The 2016 election clearly indicated that the VEC conduct of the election demonstrates a lack of expertise and rigour,” she said.
“There needs to be a comprehensive, comparative and objective evaluation of the VEC, for example, software systems and verification processes.”
Mr Georgiou’s report said: (1.43) “The entitlements of corporations would be brought in line with how the franchise is applied to other ‘persons’. Just as individuals are given only one vote in each municipality, corporations would have the ability to nominate one representative in a municipality to exercise their entitlement. This would apply to the City of Melbourne, where currently companies are able to appoint two voting representatives, despite the vote being derived from one legal entity.”
On election campaign donations, the report said: (2.103) “It is anomalous that candidates are permitted to receive campaign donations without limit when the act of accepting the campaign donation will prevent them from discharging their responsibilities as councillors with respect to council issues involving donors of more than $500.”
“The issue, however, goes beyond the consequences for individual councillors. The combination of unlimited campaign donations and the conflict of interest provisions is central to the functioning of councils as a whole in considering important strategic decisions. This is most notable when sufficient numbers of councillors have received campaign donations that prevent the council from forming a quorum.”
Greens councillor Rohan Leppert welcomed the Liberal State Council motion.
“The Georgiou recommendations would certainly have a significant impact on the City of Melbourne electoral system, but that is welcome,” he said.
“What Georgiou has recommended is common sense – why should one franchise entitlement (residency) have one vote associated with it, while others (property ownership and business occupancy) have two? The Melbourne model has never been adequately defended by the State Government.”
“Georgiou’s recommended donation cap is also worth pursuing. The risk we run in Melbourne City Council – which is unsubdivided and requires large-scale organisation to run effective campaigns – is that as our electorate keeps growing in population, the system will favour business or property-backed wealthy campaigns over community-based candidates. Or to put it another way, money will count more than ideas. Capping donations will keep elections focused where they should be: on which candidates have the best ideas and vision for the city.”
“Certainly the Georgiou recommendations if implemented would result in a more progressively weighted electorate and therefore Council. But Melbourne would still have the largest non-residential vote of any electoral system in the country, and it would remain the wealthiest with the highest proportion of males of any electoral roll in the country as well. Still, it’s a step in the right direction, and it’s good to see the Liberal Party’s State Council taking the Georgiou recommendations seriously.”