Friday, April 27, 2007

Darebin media release shows timing is everything

Like the only other media release issued this year regarding the council representation review, the City of Darebin's latest appears to have been published on council's website well after the claimed date of its distribution to the media. The web page states that it was last updated on 27 April, but it is hard not conclude that it was in fact first published there on that date, even if it was actually forwarded to the media as stated under the headline, on 24 April.

Why should this matter? Timing, as they say, is everything. The release was likely published online too late to alert website visitors of the deadline for response submissions to the Victorian Electoral Commission's preliminary report [3MB download, PDF] - as it happens, 5.00pm Tuesday 24 April. Council spin doctors also know that any actual media coverage will only appear next week.

It was a similar story with council's 9 March release, likely to have been published on council's website on the 'last updated' date of 15 March, conveniently after the VEC's deadline for preliminary submissions from the public on Tuesday 13 March. In that case, any media coverage generated in local papers was unlikely to influence public submissions, as local papers tend not to appear until at least ... you guessed it, Tuesday.

If that isn't bad enough, both releases focused not on the opportunity for the public to participate, which their timing in any case precluded, but on council propaganda for retaining the voting system that has seen council totally dominated by the Labor Unity faction of the ALP - namely majority preferential voting for nine single-councillor wards, a system prone to dummy candidates.

Now, in a submission recently published on the VEC website, Councillor Peter Stephenson has argued that there was insufficient time for consultation. It's really a bit rich when council has gone out of its way to keep the lid on the review process for fear of submissions arguing for democratic change to the council's structure - change that has been endorsed in the VEC's preliminary report as its preferred option of three three-councillor wards elected by proportional representation.

Not to be outdone, Councillor Chris Kelly has forwarded a submission including a petition of more than 1000 signatures of people supposedly against the VEC's recommendation for change and for the retention of the unrepresentative status quo. Given the Councillor's vested interest in retaining that status quo and the opportunity squandered by council to promote more actual submissions from the community, the VEC should reject such petitions out of hand as undermining the legitimate consultation process.

The VEC and the public can never be assured of what the signatories understood about the process or what was presented to them in that regard, and we will never be able to see the reasons they might have put forward had they made written submissions to the review. This is exactly the kind of 'straw poll' that the VEC stated it would not undertake in conducting the review, further stating that it would examine the arguments and reasoning of the positions put forward. I trust it will stick to that commitment, despite heavy pressure from the likes of former Preston MLA, Michael Leighton, and current MP, Robin Scott.

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.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Why proportional representation is better

As I have written here in other posts, the Victorian Electoral Commission has made a preliminary recommendation of three three-councillor wards for Darebin from the 2008 council elections onwards. You can write a submission supporting this recommendation (deadline 24 April), but why are multi-councillor wards better than the current single-councillor ones?

One of the big advantages of moving to multi-councillor wards is the voting system that comes with it – proportional representation. So, how is that different from the current system of majority preferential voting? Under the current system, in which we have one councillor per ward, a candidate must either gain a majority of votes, either from first preferences or from these together with the preferences directed to him/her from other candidates. In this system, running dummy candidates to direct their preferences to you is a tried and tested way of gaining the crucial majority – especially, it seems, if you are a candidate belonging to the Labor Unity faction of the ALP, which currently holds all nine council positions.

In some Darebin council elections, as many as 18 candidates have run in a single ward. It is understandable if voters ask whether any of these candidates might be running as dummies for no other reason than to direct their preferences to another (usually ALP) candidate. Such preferences are directed upwards from candidates who are eliminated at each stage of the counting because they have the least number of first-preference votes. Dummy candidates can therefore be relative unknowns, but as each dummy is eliminated from the count and their preferences are distributed upwards, they can together add up to give a significant advantage to the candidate for whom they are really running.

In proportional representation, however, preferences play a much smaller role and the PR system lessens the impact of dummy candidates. It also lowers the percentage of votes needed for a candidate to be elected from a majority (above 50 per cent) to a quota that depends on the number of vacancies and the total number of formal votes in the ward being contested – 25 per cent under the VEC's preferred preliminary option. For example, in a multi-councillor ward with three vacancies and 30,000 formal votes, a candidate would need a quota of 7,500 votes to get one of the three places on council for that ward - much less than a majority of 15,001. The actual formula and steps are explained in the VEC's proportional representation slide show

As a result, candidates with strong but not majority community support stand a good chance of being elected, whereas under the current majority system they have little chance. If Darebin moves to such a system, we are likely to see more diverse voices on council that have strong support and are more representative of our diverse community.

Dummies have far less influence in such a system because preferences are initially distributed downwards from candidates who have already achieved a quota (and therefore a spot on council) to those who don't. The preferences distributed are the votes the candidate has gained above the quota and are known as a surplus. Surplus votes are distributed at a diminished value worked out according to a formula. Again, this is explained in the VEC's slide show

It is clear from this that, under proportional representation, candidates with substantial community support will have more of a say in the ultimate outcome than do dummy candidates with poor support under the present system, in which their collective preferences may accumulate to get another candidate over the line.

So, be sure to have your say and get your submission into the VEC by 5.00pm on Tuesday 24 April. To find out more, go to

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Darebin council review flies under radar

Despite a healthy number of submissions from the politically engaged, the Darebin council representation review is flying under the radar with regard to the broader community. The result could be that, despite a positive preliminary recommendation from the Victorian Electoral Commission (VEC), the community doesn't mobilise to ensure fairer and more diverse representation of its views. The community response to the VEC's preliminary report will play a key part in shaping the VEC's final recommendations to the Minister for Local Government, Richard Wynne.

The VEC has so far recommended three three-councillor wards for Darebin from the 2008 elections onwards. This welcome but preliminary recommendation would bring with it a legal requirement for proportional representation. A key outcome would be that, given substantial community support, diverse voices would stand a chance of election to council and therefore broaden the representation of the community.

In contrast, the current preferential majority voting system has delivered Darebin nine councillors who are all members of the ALP's Labor Unity faction. Such a result is too often achieved with the support of 'dummies' – candidates who run only to direct their preferences to another – the more dummies you can muster, the greater your chances of election. A big benefit of the VEC's recommendation is that the role of dummies would be very much diminished, and clear community support for alternative candidates would not be undermined by the preference game.

The bad news is that the VEC's second alternative recommendation leaves open the door to retaining the present unrepresentative council structure, depending on responses to its preliminary report. The ALP's Labor Unity faction and the Darebin council will resist tooth and nail the VEC's recommended shake-up of council. Residents who value more inclusive local democracy are urged to read the VEC's preliminary report and respond by 24 April. The report and preliminary submissions can be found at the VEC's website,

Community questions and discussion are also invited here.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Six questions for minister Wynne

Following a letter in today's edition of the Northcote Leader from local MP Fiona Richardson, I thought it timely to go straight to the source for some answers about the redevelopment of the Roberts Street flats. The following quotes an email sent this morning to housing minister Wynne, and cc'ed to Richardson and the media. Richard claimed in her letter that a 'traditional public housing redevelopment' is planned for the site. Let's see how long it takes to get some decent answers.

Dear Richard,

I am writing further to Fiona Richardson's letter in the Northcote Leader (10/4, p.11) claiming that a 'traditional public housing redevelopment' is all that is envisaged for the Roberts Street site in Northcote. Our local member claimed that you had made this 'absolutely clear' on the day you announced the redevelopment to residents.

Since a search of the government's online media releases and speeches reveals no such unequivocal statements by you, and none to my knowledge have been reported, I invite your response to the following questions:

1. Do you rule out a public–private partnership on the Roberts Street site?

2. Have there been, or will there be, any discussions at a ministerial, departmental or local government level with private developers interested in developing the Roberts Street site?

3. Have there been, or will there be, any discussions at a ministerial, departmental or local government level with Melbourne Affordable Housing to develop the site under a similar arrangement to Mary Street, Preston?

4. Can you confirm that the site will be retained for the exclusive purpose of public housing managed by the Office of Housing?

5. Are you able to confirm the number of units to be constructed on the site, including the numbers of bedrooms?

6. Will you allow residents to choose their own representative in their discussions with government concerning the redevelopment?

I look forward to your response, which I am keen to share with the local community.

Sincerely, Darren Lewin-Hill

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

VEC's preferred option a good start

Released yesterday by the Victorian Electoral Commission, the preliminary report for the Darebin representation review has put forward three three-councillor wards as its preferred preliminary option for Darebin council. Its first alternative option is also for three three-councillor wards, but with different ward boundaries. Of more concern is a second alternative option that provides for nine single-councillor wards, but with ward boundaries amended from the current structure.

While the preferred option is welcome news for local democracy, the second alternative option for single-councillor wards would retain the problems with the current structure and means the door is still open for an ALP factional campaign attempting to reverse the VEC's preliminary findings. For this reason it is very important that concerned members of the community read the preliminary report and respond in support of the preferred option for three three-councillor wards.

The deadline for submissions is 24 April. Submitters also have the option of speaking to their response at a public hearing on 3 May (details at the VEC website).

The preliminary submissions that informed the VEC's preliminary report overwhelmingly argued for change. Few submissions argued for retention of single-councillor wards, with key support for this position unsurprisingly coming from the City of Darebin itself. Council's submission was adopted in March by the very councillors who stand to be directly affected by any move to multi-councillor wards. Currently the nine council positions are held by nine members of the ALP's Labor Unity faction.

Please watch this site for updates and further analysis of the preliminary report. Feel free to leave your comments using the link below. Comments are moderated, but open debate is most welcome. Alternatively, send me an email

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Rep review preliminary findings due today

Darebin residents will today find out if the Victorian Electoral Commission has recommended multi-councillor wards, or a maintenance of the unrepresentative status quo in the form of continued council domination by the Labor Unity faction of the ALP.

Preliminary submissions to the Commission put a strong case for allowing more diverse representation on council by electing multiple councillors per ward via proportional representation, in which candidates achieving a minimum quota of votes derived by a formula are elected to council.

The adoption of proportional representation would likely mean that Greens, independents and other alternative voices with strong community support would be able to represent, and vote for, widely held community views in the council chamber.

Currently, preferential voting to establish a majority for a single councillor in each ward allows the ALP undue influence on the process via high numbers of candidates with an ALP alignment directing their preferences to the ALP's preferred councillor in any given ward. The number of candidates in a single ward has been as high as 18 in recent Darebin council elections.

The announcement of the VEC's preliminary findings will likely come via the media release page of the VEC website. Following release of the findings, responses must be submitted to the VEC by 24 April.

Watch this site for updates. Please use the comment link to this post (see below) to have your say, or send me an email