Not so progressive: Labor's puzzling local council proposal

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Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews (screenshot via Twitter).

Australia’s "most progressive" State Government is championing the most regressive electoral reform from Labor in decades, writes Devon Rowcliffe.

An UNANTICIPATED PROPOSAL by the Daniel Andrews-led Victorian Labor Government would force municipalities to abandon proportional representation for an inferior election system and reverse dozen years of improvements to local democracy.

Victorian Minister for Local Government, Adem Somyurek, has suggested councils should no longer be allowed to hold unsubdivided elections in which councillors represent the entire municipality at-large.

Multi-councillor wards are also set to be scrapped.

In their place, Labor’s Local Government Bill 2019 proposes that all 79 of Victoria’s councils be required to adopt single-councillor wards, the same voting system used for Federal House of Representatives and State Legislative Assembly elections.

Mandating single-councillor wards across Victoria would introduce a plethora of new problems into local democracy, such as disproportional election results, fewer women and minority candidates elected, as well as a tendency toward myopic politics and "ward bosses".

Victorian Labor’s peculiar proposal also contradicts a global trend toward adopting proportional elections. Most developed Western democracies use forms of proportional representation. Even in countries that inherited Britain’s "first past the post" election system, the shift toward proportional elections has been steady. Australia, New Zealand, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and Ireland each use proportional representation in some or all levels of elections.

Australia has a long history of using proportional representation. The Senate adopted a proportional election system in 1948, although such a feature was initially proposed prior to Federation. All states with a Legislative Council currently use proportional representation for such elections. Several states allow municipalities to hold proportional council elections, and no state currently requires all of its municipalities to exclusively use single-councillor wards.

In Victoria, support for proportional representation has come from both sides of the political spectrum. In 1997, the Kennett Liberal State Government permitted municipalities to use proportional representation to elect councillors. In 2003, the Bracks Labor Government adopted proportionality for the State’s Legislative Council elections.

Most Victorian municipalities currently use a system of proportional representation for their elections, either through an unsubdivided council or multi-councillor wards. A move to single-councillor wards would result in an end to proportional elections, meaning the make-up of councillors across a municipality could look remarkably different than the popular vote.

Victorian Labor’s unexpected proposal to axe proportional representation was not included in its 2018 election platform. Conversely, the manifesto did promise to "support diverse representation" and yet the unanticipated proposal for single-councillor wards would accomplish precisely the opposite.

The Andrews Labor Government has offered four reasons to justify scrapping proportional representation from municipal elections, but each seems disingenuous.

First, it claims that single-member wards would create ‘stronger local democracy with direct accountability to the community'. But do smaller wards truly make for "stronger" representation? This dubious claim conveniently ignores why the Victorian Electoral Commission recommends most municipalities use unsubdivided councils or multi-member wards, such as voters having greater choice.

And all local councillors are already "directly" elected and accountable to voters, regardless of the election system.

It’s also hypocritical that Minister Somyurek, himself elected under the Victorian Legislative Council’s multi-member voting system, would rule out multi-councillor wards for municipalities. If the claim that larger constituencies result in diluted democracy is to be believed, what does that mean for Minister Somyurek’s representation of Victoria’s South Eastern Metropolitan Region?

Why doesn’t this democratic reform proposal also aim to change state elections if multi-member representation is so intolerable?

A second stated reason for the proposed reform is that because municipalities across the state use different types of elections, voters can purportedly be confused by a "disparate mix of systems". But in reality, a voter is only required to use one municipal voting system.

Differences among councils exist for good reason: each municipality has had a bespoke voting system designed for its local needs by the Victorian Electoral Commission. Why should an urban centre like Melbourne be forced to use the same election system as Towong Shire, despite radically different circumstances?

A third rationale is that ‘some councillors [need] more votes than others to be elected'. While this is true, and perhaps especially irksome in a municipality that contains wards of different sizes (a two-councillor ward and a three-councillor ward), there is nothing inherently unfair about such an election system.

Although a candidate running for office in a single-member ward requires fewer votes to get elected than a candidate running in a three-member ward, that is offset by the former having a smaller voter pool to pull from. Every candidate in a particular ward or unsubdivided municipality faces the same circumstances as their direct competitors.

A fourth suggested justification for the proposed reform is to ‘more closely [reflect] the way members of Parliament are elected'. This is a reference to the House of Representatives electing candidates in single-member divisions, implying that it would be easier if municipalities used the same election system that voters are familiar with from federal elections.

But the official who wrote this statement seems to have forgotten that the Senate is also part of the Parliament of Australia and that Senate elections aren’t comprised of single-member districts: they use multi-member seats, just like most Victorian councils do.

Surely the most confusing aspect of voting in Australia is casting ballots using two different voting systems simultaneously, as happens in state and federal elections: single-member districts for the lower house and multi-member districts for the upper house. But, again, Victorian Labor isn’t attempting to remedy this scenario for state elections, which suggests their reform proposal ultimately isn’t about simplification for voters.

Perhaps the greatest concern regarding Victorian Labor’s surprise reform proposal is that a compulsory change to single-councillor wards would nullify more than a dozen years of work and contradict recommendations made by the Victorian Electoral Commission.

This State Government agency has painstakingly reviewed every municipal council’s election system based upon local needs and in most cases has recommended using either an unsubdivided council or multi-councillor wards – both of which can underpin proportional representation. Hurried proposals by the Andrews Government would inexplicably quash improvements already made to local democracy as championed by non-partisan experts on electoral reform.

Even more bizarre is Victorian Labor’s effort to rescind proportional representation just as Queensland’s Labor government hopes to add proportionality to the state’s municipal voting for the 2024 elections.

Across Australia, Labor has usually been the political party to implement proportional elections, yet in Victoria, the party is going against history by proposing the opposite. Premier Andrews may fancy himself as Australia’s most progressive politician, but this proposal by his Government is anything but.

To discontinue proportional elections would be a reckless mistake that would worsen representation for Victorian residents. Elections are the foundation of democracy, and any unconvincing attempt to regress to an inferior election system should be met with suspicion.

Australia is one of the most progressive Commonwealth countries when it comes to electoral reform, which makes the current Victoria proposal a perplexing anachronism. That such a scheme should come from Labor is particularly unfathomable.

Victoria, the first jurisdiction in the world to introduce the secret ballot in 1856, need not become an elections laggard in 2019. The Andrews Government’s proposal to strip local elections of proportional representation should be strenuously rejected.

Devon Rowcliffe is a freelance political commentator and columnist for Canada’s Loonie Politics. Devon holds a master’s degree in political science and Asian studies from the University of Toronto. He currently lives in Toronto, Canada. You can reach him @DevonRowcliffe.

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