No Elections for You!


Think of us, won’t you. While the rest of New South Wales goes to the polls tomorrow to elect their local councils, we here in the Illawarra won’t. Both Wollongong and Shellharbour Councils were sacked this year, with administrators appointed by the State Government for four long years.

While many people are finding life easier without the hassle of fending off the rampant horde of development proposals – and the cynicism which grows when you just know your Council is as dirty as they come – others of us are living with the dismay of total disempowerment.

Wollongong Council meetings now last less than half an hour. They are quiet and orderly, the decisions are obviously agreed before the meeting and there’s no argument among the three administrators. When we had councillors the meetings could drag on half the night, with motions, rescission motions, meetings in confidence, noise and commotion from the floor.

Before, the muck which stuck to every major development was almost visible, because the developer/council/politician (DCP) nexus was so arrogant it hardly even bothered hide itself anymore. Now, you kind of know that the schemes and connivances are going on, but they’re hidden better, behind the veneer of administrative respectability.

The administrators have made some good symbolic decisions – such as protecting Wollongong Town Hall from the ravenous DCP alliance, which had become so powerful it was about to eat up even the heart and soul and civic centre of this town.

This was a small price to pay to keep the face of the ALP acceptable to those who have been its backbone and bloodstream for decades. These good people of the Illawarra still believe in the ideals of the party for the workers. They don’t want to see the decay and corruption, the selfishness and greed that has set in to "their" party.

When you look at the corruption and incompetence which has led to these two Illawarra councils being sacked, you notice that they have a lot in common. They’ve both been dominated by the ALP for as long as anyone can remember. They are both suffering huge development pressures because of the overflow from Sydney, and there are fortunes to be made from coastal real estate.

And they both share the same ward structure: lots of little wards with two councillors for each ward. Under current legislation, if a ward has fewer than three councillors a preferential voting system is employed. This leads to a "winner-takes-all" situation at election time, rather than the proportional representation enjoyed by most of the rest of NSW.

Greens MLC Sylvia Hale has given the following example of what can happen under such a structure:

"In the 2004 local government election, in ward B in Shellharbour one group won both of the positions despite gaining only 29 per cent of the primary vote. However, another group, which gained 34.5 per cent of the primary vote, won no positions. In other words, 70 per cent of people voted for someone other than the successful candidates."

Our neighbouring council to the south, Kiama, a varied, functional and responsive council and has no wards at all. Kiama is doing fine and will go to the polls.

The preferential system leads to the dominance of the elected council by the major group. So rather than a good mix of councillors which closely matches the voters’ intentions, you end up with an entrenched dominant group which never has to worry about being punished at the polls.

Having a single, entrenched, dominant group over many years, can lead to the kind of unhealthy relationships with developers that have been uncovered this year in the Illawarra. Until the voting systems are changed in Wollongong and Shellharbour, we have little chance of getting the healthy, responsive, transparent, functional councils that most of us long for.

The Illawarra Greens are proposing to change the ward systems in Wollongong and Shellharbour, to try to break the back of the DCP conspiracy. As a first step, we want to see both councils move to at least three councillors per ward – that means larger wards with more voters in each. This is an easy enough step, and will give us the benefit of proportional representation at least.

But ideally we want to see no wards at all.

In those councils with no wards, each councillor represents the whole city, not just their own personal enclave of supporters in their own little fiefdom. Each councillor is there because they, or their party, have gained enough support and votes across the city.

In Wolllongong tomorrow, instead of an election, we’ll have a council "kiosk" – those strange little ad-hoc opportunities we sometimes get to talk to our council. This one is being held in the middle of election day, perhaps to divert us from thoughts of elections past.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.