Wednesday, April 25, 2007

VEC persuaded by reasoning, not just numbers

Response submissions are now being published on the VEC website following the VEC's preliminary report on proposed council changes for Darebin issued on 3 April. Overall numbers, including preliminary submissions, thus far continue to strongly favour the the VEC's preferred preliminary option of three three-councillor wards elected by proportional representation, but the tally will not be fully known until later this week.

Despite the ultimate count for and against, the VEC has stated that it is not conducting a 'straw poll' and, though it recognises the number of submissions favouring the preferred option, has so far also found the reasoning of submissions favouring PR to be 'persuasive'.

Understandably, a few councillors have thrown their hats into the ring, with submissions from councillors Peterson, Chiang, Fontana and Kelly arguing for the status quo. Their arguments appear to focus on the accountability benefits of having a single councillor, but what happens if representation is poor? I can only surmise their answer is 'wait another four years until you can vote someone else in'. With multi-member wards, residents would have more than one councillor to go to, and it's likely that a more diverse council would better represent diverse community interests in the chamber.

My submission is not yet up on the VEC website, but is available here. Some of the points I make are:

Under the proposal councillors would need more support to be elected than was needed in either the 2002 or 2004 council polls. Nor under the proposal would the preferences of minor candidates play nearly as big a role in helping them to reach the required quota. Dummy candidates would be far less effective under PR.

In its preliminary submission, council sought to justify its argument for retaining nine single-councillor wards by harking back to the mid-1990s recommendation by political scientist Dr Brian Costar to the Darebin Commissioners. What they don't say is that multi-councillor wards under PR were not then an option for Dr Costar under the legislation. He confirms this is in an email I have included with his permission in my response submission.

Despite councillor Peter Stephenson's protest in his response submission that the VEC allowed insufficient time for consultation, council did almost nothing to promote the review process. Its actions have shown that, rather than seeking to promote broad engagement, it has been more concerned to keep the lid on the review for fear of dissenting views.

My response submission also points out that the City of Darebin's own submission supports the VEC's position because the City concedes that we have non-geographic communities of interest. These are better represented by larger wards under PR because they capture support over wider areas and allow it to be represented by an elected candidate.

Stay tuned for further reflections on the response submissions, and remember there will be a public hearing for submitters at council's Gower Street Preston offices on Thursday 3 May from 6.30pm.


  1. Readers of Northcote Independent may be interested in my paper on VEC representation reviews submitted to a Postgraduate Conference at Monash University:


    Victorian Electoral Commission Representation Reviews

    Paper presented by Lyle Allan to Monash University School of Political and Social Inquiry Postgraduate Symposium, Clayton Campus, 24 October 2005.


    The Bracks government has, under the Local Government Act, provided for Representation Reviews as the means by which local government boundaries and the number of councillors per ward is determined. The Victorian Electoral Commission (VEC) conducts these representation reviews after community consultation and its own investigations.

    The change to proportional representation in multi member wards is a desirable change in Victorian local government, but this change has not been consistently adopted, and has been opposed by many local party apparatchiks. Many VEC reviews have been thorough and sensible. In others they have benefited particular constituencies rather than a community at large.

    The use of dummy candidates is a feature of local government elections VEC representation reviews have often encouraged. Single member wards, especially but not always in the bigger urban councils, will see a continuation of this practice on a grand scale.

    The Kennett Liberal government in 1994 dramatically changed Victorian local government. Previously the state comprised 210 local councils, but this was reduced to 78. When in opposition the Liberal Party in Victoria opposed Council amalgamations under the Cain and Kirner governments, yet on attaining office in 1992 did precisely this itself. Councillors were sacked, and commissioners were appointed to run the new councils, apart from the tiny Borough of Queenscliffe, which continued to be the only local council in Victoria to be elected by residents and ratepayers during the Commissioner period. Under Commissioner rule councils were placed under considerable financial restraint. The introduction of compulsory competitive tendering for the provision of council services and the deployment of staff were features of that period local government historians generally write about, but usually neglected is the structure of the new councils themselves.

    Prior to the Kennett reforms local councils, apart from the City of Melbourne, usually comprised a number of councillors that was divisible by three, a factor that resulted from an earlier law providing for annual elections, with one third of the council retiring at an election every year. Local politics was normally about local issues, except in the Labor heartland of inner Melbourne, and only the ALP, the Communist Party, and for a time the Democratic Labor Party endorsed candidates in local government elections. Liberal Party and National Party members frequently contest local council elections, but they never do so as representatives of their party, but sometimes will reveal their poltical affiliations in local newspapers and if they get elected as biographical information on their Council’s web site.

    The commissioners decided the form of local government boundaries for the first council elections at the end of their rule. In many country councils they provided for an unsubdivided council, with all councillors elected at large. Mildura, Warrnambool and Greater Shepparton are in this category. In others they provided for a mixture of councillor numbers per ward, the name of local government electorates (the term riding used to be used for rural shires but to avoid confusion the term ward is now used universally in Victoria). All wards were given names, not the Queensland practice of numbers. By Commissioner edict Darebin Council, elected after 1996, consisted of nine single councillor wards. In Bendigo this was seven single councillor wards. In Hobsons Bay there were four wards comprising two councillors each. In Glen Eira three three councillor wards. There was no consistency. Diversity in council electoral structure depended on Commissioner whim., except in the City of Melbourne and the City of Greater Geelong, where legislation initially provided for a dual electoral system of at large or “district” councillors and single councillor wards.

    The Bracks government has, under the Local Government Act, provided for Representation Reviews as the means by which local government boundaries and the number of councillors per ward is determined. The Victorian Electoral Commission (VEC) conducts these representation reviews after community consultation and its own investigations. The Local Government Act provides for a minimum of 5 and a maximum of 12 councillors in any municipality, whereas in the pre-Kennett period this was between nine and fifteen.

    Representation reviews are conducted at council expense by the VEC and represent the decision of an “independent umpire,” the VEC commissioner. The final reports have been mixed. The structure put in place by commissioners has often been adopted, and there is a considerable mix, not always adopting best electoral practice.

    A factor that needs to be considered by the VEC is the adoption of the quota preferential voting system. The fact that the this voting system is now used in multi member wards means that the number of councillors per ward rather than voters can sometimes be a crucial factor in the composition of a council, not necessarily party control of a council. Ideally even number wards under PR are not desirable, as a majority by a particular group in such a ward is not necessarily translated into a majority of seats won.

    In some councils the VEC final report is nonsensical. The best example of this is the Shire of Moorabool. There is one four councillor ward, based on the Bacchus Marsh, and three single member wards based on the rural areas of the shire. A particular group could conceivably win all three of the single member wards with small overall majorities and around fifty five percent of the total vote in each ward, and obtain about twenty per cent of the vote (or one quota) in the Bacchus Marsh ward. A minority of around 35 per cent can gain control of the Moorabool Shire Council with four of the seven councillors. A majority of 65 per cent would win only three councillors.

    Another example is the Shire of Cardinia, with a similar position to that in the Shire of Moorabool. The Cardinia ward boundaries could result in a particular group winning the two single councillor wards (based on Nar Nar Goon in one case and the asparagus centre of Koo Wee Rup and the town of Lang Lang in the case of the other, one councillor in the two councillor ward based on Emerald and Gembrook, and one councillor out of three in the ward based on Pakenham. Here, assuming a consistent fifty five percent in the single councillor wards, and a quota in each of the multi member wards of thirty-three and twenty five percent respectively, a minority of around 36 per cent could gain a majority with four of the seven members of the Cardinia Shire Council.

    In many Councils the VEC can be commended on its final report. These include Stonnington, Wyndham, Glen Eira, Wellington, Whittlesea and Yarra. Here the final report recommendations approved by Minister Candy Broad (who has never rejected any final report) are sensible and comply with best practice under quota preferential proportional representation voting and have an odd number of councillors (3) in each of three multi-councillor wards.

    Councils where Representation Reviews have supported all single councillor wards are in the minority, but they represent the three largest provincial cities of Greater Ballarat, Greater Bendigo and Greater Geelong, the Mornington Peninsula Shire, as well as the metropolitan councils of Hobsons Bay, and Maribyrnong. It is possible political party heavies in several of these cases have influenced the VEC Commissioner. These include former Bendigo Liberal MP Daryl McLure and local Mayor Rod Fyffe in Greater Bendigo, federal Labor MHR Nicola Roxon in the case of Maribyrnong, former Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser and former Victorian Liberal Minister Alan Hunt and the council CEO in the case of Mornington Peninsula, and former ALP apparatchik and Municipal Association of Victoria President Brad Matheson in the case of Hobsons Bay.

    Many submissions made to representation reviews by individuals supporting single councillor wards do so under a misunderstanding of the voting system to be used. In the case of Mornington Peninsula a former Councillor opposed multi-member wards not realising that the voting system had been changed. She had earlier lost an election under the majority-preferential system in a multi-member ward in that municipality. She would probably have been re-elected under a quota preferential proportional representation system.

    Sitting councillors and sometimes ex councillors often see as their major concern the number of councillors rather than identifying the possible consequences. In Greater Bendigo for example the number of councillors seemed the primary concern, not the type of ward division. Even groups involved in local government make this mistake, with disastrous consequences. Hobsons Bay Community First in its original representation review submission recommended eleven single councillor wards. This helped local ALP heavies, who wanted single member wards believing the party might win almost all of them. Realising too late the consequences of their original submission, that the VEC would not be prepared to have a council of this size and the fact that the local Community Labor organisation would be the major beneficiary, their second submission, written by Tony Briffa, recommended three wards electing three councillors each.

    The most common reason for support for single councillor wards by political apparatchiks, who tend to write the most professional submissions, is to support community of interest and the closeness of a single councillor to their residents and ratepayers. Some submissions even compare the use of a different type of proportional representation in parliamentary elections in Europe, which is totally irrelevant to Victorian local government. In fact they are writing form self interest. In Mornington Peninsula, where persons associated with the Liberal Party were behind the bulk of submissions made, favour a voting system that at the previous council election ensured councillors allied with their party won all seats on the council. In Maribyrnong the local ALP organisation favours a voting system that frequently will give the ALP almost all seats on the council. In Darebin there has so far been no representation review, but it can be expected Preston MP Michael Leighton and high profile local ALP heavy Cr Peter Stephenson will support single councillor wards. At present all members of the Darebin council are members of the ALP, and a change of voting system would see Greens and non-party independents elected for the first time. Single councillor wards also maximise the benefits of dummy candidates, candidates who run solely to funnel preferences to a preferred candidate. Nillimbik and Darebin have been councils with particular dummy problems. Proportional representation does not eliminate dummy candidates, but it will reduce their influence, as the aim is to get a quota of votes and not an absolute majority. In aiming to get a quota of voters candidates will in most cases seek a direct appeal to voters, not an appeal through dummies. Deals are of course still done for preference purposes in a proportional representation election, and they must be where there is a compulsory numbering of preferences, but they will influence a smaller number of councillors seeking election and not a whole council where a proportional voting system is not used.

    In summary, the change to proportional representation in multi member wards is a desirable change in Victorian local government, but this change has not been consistently adopted, and has been opposed by many local party apparatchiks. Many VEC reviews have been thorough and sensible. In others they have benefited particular constituencies rather than a community at large.

    The use of dummy candidates is a feature of local government elections VEC representation reviews have often encouraged. Single member wards, especially but not always in the bigger urban councils, will see a continuation of this practice on a grand scale.

    Reforms that could be adopted to make the system more workable are an increase in the number of councillors per council to a maximum of 15 rather than 12. This would enable five three-member wards in the bigger councils and this would meet general approval. There should also be an optional marking of preferences. Compulsory marking of preferences aids those who run dummy candidates, for most voters will comply with such recommendations. There should also be a ban on the recommendation of preference marking on candidate information statements. This will force voters to make their own judgments about marking of preferences. There should also be uniformity as to the structure of each council. The VEC should be concerned only with the ward boundaries, not the number of councillors per ward which should be prescribed by legislation.

  2. Readers of Northcote Independent may be interested in my response submission to the VEC Darebin City Council Representation Review:


    By Lyle Allan

    I congratulate the Victorian Electoral Commission on its Preliminary Report for the City of Darebin Representation Review. It is argued well, and the recommendations conform with best proportional representation practice.

    I believe proportional representation with three three member wards, as proposed by the VEC, to be in the best interest of the City of Darebin.

    Several people made comments to me after my submission appeared on the VEC web site, and I would like to publicly reply to these as the matters they raised will certainly be raised by others making response submissions. The comments were:

    That multi councillor wards increase the work load of individual councillors, as one good councillor is elected first and two lazy councillors get elected as a result of preferences from the lead candidate on the successful ticket.

    This statement is an exaggeration, but it illustrates the situation that occurred under the majority preferential voting system that applied in Victorian local government before 2004. In both Preston and Northcote the councils were elected from three member wards in the late 1980s. Both Councils were politicised and the usual result was an ALP ticket or an Independent ticket winning all three vacancies in the three member wards. This was exactly the same situation that occurred in the Senate before 1949, when one or other of the major parties would win all three Senate vacancies in a particular state.

    This is unlikely to occur under the proportional representation voting system. A former Councillor from Rosebud opposed multi member wards in the Mornington Peninsula representation review for a similar reason. She was unaware that the proportional representation voting system and not the majority preferential voting system now applies in multi member wards at local government elections. It is possible some making submissions in other municipalities, including Darebin, may be under a similar misapprehension. The election of multi-member ward Councils prior to 2004 cannot be compared with elections since that date, when proportional representation was generally used for the first time.

    That proportional representation leads to a higher informal vote and a higher number of candidates.

    The size of the informal vote is not related to the voting system used. There is a relationship between the number of candidates and the informal vote, but this is not exact. In the nearby City of Whittlesea at the 2004 election under proportional representation the informal vote was 3.61 per cent in West Ward with ten candidates. At the previous City of Darebin election under the majority preferential system in the single member Cazaly Ward the informal vote was 6.52 per cent with 15 candidates.

    There is also no necessary relationship between the number of candidates and the voting system. In the City of Glen Eira there were considerably fewer candidates at the first election under proportional representation than there were at the previous election under the majority preferential voting system.

    The ALP in Darebin may suffer and lose control of the Darebin City Council.

    No one can predict the result of an election. Proportional representation will ensure that no group will obtain lopsided representation, as occurs under majority voting systems. At one time the ALP held 17 out of 18 Northcote Councillors. The only Independent, Cr Ron Gleeson, was certainly the most capable Northcote Councillor for much of the 1960s and 1970s. Had the ALP sought to campaign strongly against him Northcote would have had an entirely ALP Council, and this would not have been good for the municipality. The former Preston City Council too has had lopsided ALP and Independent control at various times. Council should represent a diversity of viewpoints. Majority systems lead to overrepresentation where Councils are politicised. Proportional representation is likely to result in a less politicised Darebin City Council.

    If the ALP or any other group such as organised Independents or the Greens or even Liberals contested Darebin City Council elections and had majority support they would still win a majority of seats on the Council. Only if they had seventy five percent support in each ward would they win all seats on the Council. It’s not as if proportional representation means that a majority-supported grouping cannot win control of the Council. It means that only where they had overwhelming support would they win all the Council seats. Proportional representation also reduces the ability of minorities to win control where wards return the same number of councillors and that number is an odd number. This is the VEC proposal in Darebin.

    Council may prove unworkable. They will be so diverse they will all fight each other.

    In fact the most difficult Councils in Victoria have been elected under majority voting systems. Darebin and Glen Eira are two Councils sacked since the reorganisation of local government in Victoria in 1994. Both were elected under a majority voting system. The performance of Glen Eira City Council and Frankston City Council, subject to a great deal of criticism in the past, has improved greatly since those Councils were elected under the proportional representation voting system.

    Failed council candidates and vested interest groups are the only people promoting proportional representation.

    I am aware of only one former candidate for the Darebin City Council who has made a submission in favour of proportional representation. Despite my many decades of residence in Darebin I have never been a candidate in any local government election, nor have I sought to be a candidate. Most submissions in favour of proportional representation, such as that by myself, are being made by individuals as individuals and not part of any group submission. Many groups of high standing, for example the local Progress Association and the Proportional Representation Society of Australia, favour proportional representation in Darebin. So do many local community organisations. It is a slur on people of goodwill to make this claim.

    Proportional representation will lead to higher rates.

    There is no evidence to support this proposition. It is a loopy claim that, incredibly, has been made in submissions to other representation reviews. Rates are based on municipal valuations, and are not part of this review. To say that one voting system rather than another can result in differential rates is ludicrous.

    In summary I commend the VEC preliminary report, and support the implementation of either the Preferred Option or the First Alternative Option.

    My preference is for the first alternative option, as the proposed ward boundaries are similar to those in my original submission. I would be equally happy if the preferred option were adopted in the final report.

    I am totally opposed to the second alternative option, as this provides for single member wards and will be to the detriment of the Darebin City Council.

    I wish to address the public meeting in Darebin on May 3rd.


Comments are most welcome on any of the posts at Northcote Independent. I encourage feedback - positive or negative. Feel free to disagree, but remember that posts are moderated to ensure they are on the topic and in the spirit of open debate, as outlined in my editorial policy.