Wednesday, May 23, 2007

VEC recommends a more representative Council for Darebin

The Victorian Electoral Commission has recommended that Darebin City Council be elected by proportional representation (PR) from three three-councillor wards at next year's elections. The final report, issued late Monday, affirms the preferred option of the Commission's preliminary report, but makes minor changes to ward boundaries to reflect concerns expressed during the public review process. The recommendation will now be considered by local government minister, Richard Wynne.

The final recommendation, which has dropped any alternative option retaining the current single-councillor structure, is a big win for local democracy in Darebin. The current councillors will now be open to challenge from strongly supported community candidates who, under the changes, will gain a realistic chance of election via the PR voting system that legislation requires for multi-councillor wards. As a result, there is some prospect that the Labor Unity factional monopoly on the current council will be broken, with fresh viewpoints and more open debate in the council chamber.

Though the final recommendation is yet to be approved by the minister, its rejection would risk a public perception of political interference given the care with which the VEC has made its case for change. The closely reasoned report has stated that case clearly while rejecting the case for retaining the current structure on transparent and robust grounds. One factor important to the decision was the ability of larger wards to capture well-supported communities of interest that could achieve the quota of votes necessary to elect a candidate under the PR system. This would result in a more representative council than under the current structure, which divides communities of interest, and therefore support for potential candidates, among a larger number of smaller wards.

Ultimately, the VEC's finding is an invitation for the residents of Darebin to participate in their local democracy, and that's a good thing in the opinion of this writer.

Monday, May 7, 2007

Leader Needs to 'Shore Up' Review Coverage

Last week's edition of the Preston Leader ran with an item on the Darebin representation review under the headline 'Locals shore up support'. It described a 'tidal wave' of support for the current system, which has given the ALP's Labor Unity faction nine out of nine elected councillors in Darebin.

However, the Leader report failed to factor in the preliminary submissions when it said that only 16 out of 53 submissions supported change. While I actually have 18 of the response submissions down as supporting change, we shouldn't forget that only three of the 31 preliminary submissions supported the current system. In total, of the 84 submissions, 45 supported change, and 38 supported the status quo - one submission was unclear.

Three of the community groups supporting the current system are from the Lebanese community, of which two Darebin councillors are members. It should also be noted that councillor Stanley Chiang is president of another group submitting in support of no change - the Northern Melbourne Chinese Association.

While both these groups together represent only a combined 3.3 per cent of the Darebin population of about 128,000, they would in fact be better represented under the proportional representation system proposed by the VEC in its preliminary report.

PR reflects 75 per cent voter support in three-member wards, while the current system reflects just over 50 per cent. And while it is true that council currently includes a relatively diverse membership, they also represent a political monopoly at odds with the diversity of views held by Darebin's communities.

The Leader report also failed to note the submission by the Preston Reservoir Progress Association, choosing instead to promote a petition submitted to the VEC by a Darebin councillor. This despite the fact that council would have done better to promote actual submissions rather than collect signatures no doubt responding to an ALP pitch. Instead of doing almost nothing to promote the review process, council could have encouraged participation - especially by referring our various ethnic communities to multilingual information offered by the VEC.

Instead, council opted to mobilise support informally among those it could count on, thereby undermining the formal consultation carried out by the VEC. Unfortunately for council, so far it hasn't quite worked. In my presentation to the VEC's public hearing, I urged the VEC to maintain its stated commitment to the reasoning of submissions, and reject what it had earlier called a 'straw poll' comprising merely of numbers for and against. It is the strength of the arguments that should win the day, and that's where the ALP has fallen down.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

VEC public hearing on Darebin council

Well, it was a bit of a marathon but well worth sitting through the 18 presentations made at the hearing on the Darebin representation review held last night (Thursday 3 May). A lot of arguments were made, among them the false claim that data from the 2005 Brimbank election supports the case against a change of council structure in Darebin. To read why that case is fundamentally flawed, take a look at the following media release and my presentation.

Preston MLA to speak tonight on flawed Darebin voting submission

My speaking notes for the presentation

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

So what's the real balance of political submissions?

The likes of Preston MLA, Robin Scott, his predecessor Michael Leighton, and Councillor Peter Stephenson have put forward views that submissions to the Darebin representation review seeking a change in council structure can be variously attributed to 'failed candidates' or 'political activists'. Yet actual analysis of the submissions tells a different story.

With more than half of the submissions from the total whose political alignment is known, the weight of politically motivated submissions falls decidedly with the ALP. Indeed, of the submitters of unknown political alignment who were unelected candidates, four out of six supported the ALP position of retaining the current council structure, despite the fact that it makes the election of even well supported alternative candidates very unlikely.

Four Greens submissions, one Independent and one Liberal submission supported change consistent with the VEC's preferred preliminary option of three three-councillor wards elected by proportional representation.

With the bulk of political submissions coming from the ALP supporting a system that has delivered nine Labor Unity councillors, and political opposition coming from diverse political viewpoints, just where does the bias really lie?

Of further interest was the submission from the North East Melbourne Chinese Association (NEMCA). This was submitted by the NEMCA Secretary, but a look at NEMCA's website reveals that its president is none other than Councillor Stanley Chiang.

The review enters the public hearing phase on Thursday night, when submitters will appear from 6.30pm at the council chambers (Cnr Gower and High Streets, Preston) to make their final arguments before the VEC issues its final report to the Minister for Local Government, Richard Wynne, on 21 May. Approximately 18 submitters are expected to present, including council, Robin Scott, Michael Leighton, and myself.

Further analysis of the submissions is available as a PDF download