The principle of “one person one vote” took a big leap forward in the City of Sydney last week with the abolition of double votes for business.
In 2014, the then-NSW Coalition Premier Mike Baird introduced a law to give businesses two votes each and force the $13 million cost of maintaining the non-residential roll onto the City of Sydney. The move was widely seen as an attempt to get rid of Lord Mayor Clover Moore and deliver control of town hall to business interests.
This appalling anti-democratic move was protested strongly at the time and resentment lingered through the subsequent council elections, with campaigners maintaining pressure for it to be abolished ever since.
Voter anger at the change was probably a factor in maintaining a healthy vote for Moore and her team in the council election of 2016. In 2021, the most vocal defender of the gerrymander, Angela Vithoulkas, was ousted and Greens councillor Sylvie Ellsmore was elected.
When Labor returned to power in NSW in March this year, the time had come to right a wrong. Upon questioning from independent MP Alex Greenwich, new Minister for Local Government Ron Hoenig announced in May that he would commence a consultation with stakeholders with a view to repealing the 2014 law.
Friends of Erskineville wrote to Hoenig expressing the view that any changes should ensure that "nobody can vote more than once or in multiple local government areas". We also requested that "consultation is thorough and seeks the views of all residents and the many resident action groups active in the City of Sydney".
Disappointingly, no such consultation took place.
If Hoenig had done such consultation, he would have been more aware of support for stronger democratic change. Recently, election analyst Ben Raue wrote in favour of abolishing non-residential voting altogether on his website The Tally Room. This was also the conclusion reached by ANU Associate Professor Ryan Goss in a paper he wrote in 2017.
In 1921, Queensland abolished non-residential voting in council elections. The same principle has also applied in Britain since 1969. This puts council voting in line with voting at state and federal elections. It means you only get to vote for the local council that runs the area you live in, you only get to vote once, and there are no special voting rights for corporations or property owners.
Local councils are the level of government closest to the people and often in the best position to roll out services in an equitable and efficient way. They can be global leaders in taking action to address the climate emergency, particularly in supporting a shift to active transport and reducing waste. They are also an important way for ordinary people to engage with politics and to have local voices amplified. We have moved a long way from the limited horizons of “roads, rates and rubbish”.
Giving local government greater responsibilities and corresponding funding makes sense. But to ensure this happens in a democratic, participatory and accountable way, at the very least we need to put council election voting on a foundation that respects people, not property.
There's no good reason why NSW and the other states can't implement changes to achieve what Queensland achieved over a century ago, but it will take sustained pressure on an issue not usually top of mind, even at election times. While we celebrate the abolition of double votes for business in the City of Sydney, we know there is still much more to be done.
[Andrew Chuter is the President of the Friends of Erskineville. FIX NSW has set up a template letter to Mr Hoenig calling for the abolition of non-residential voting at tinyurl.com/peoplenotproperty. Readers in other states can write to the relevant ministers for local government making the same demand.]