Residents push for an end to rigged City of Sydney vote

November 1, 2021
City of Sydney allows businesses two votes in the local government election. Photo: Andrew Chuter

The Oxford English Dictionary defines democracy as “a political system, or a system of decision-making within an institution or organisation or a country, in which all members have an equal share of power”.

Voters in the City of Sydney council area will participate in an election on December 4 which fails this definition.

It will be the second such election held since Robert Borsak of the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party’s private members bill, City of Sydney Amendment (Elections) 2014, was passed with support of the New South Wales Coalition and the Christian Democrats.

This controversial law allows businesses in the City of Sydney two votes, by allowing the business to appoint two people from outside the local area to vote on its behalf. The NSW Council for Civil Liberties described this as “profoundly undemocratic”.

One might wonder how a business selects two such people and then gets them to vote in its interest. Almost certainly, they do not poll their employees on who to cast a vote for, nor for the two people chosen to fill out the ballot paper. Given that elections are by secret ballot, it is not clear how voting a particular way could even be enforced upon those two people.

Some supporters of this gerrymander argue that if a business pays rates, it should get a vote. But a business is not a person. It may have a number of owners and employees, but these people already get to vote by virtue of being people. To confuse this issue is to commit the fallacy of composition, inferring that something is true of the whole from the fact that it is true only of some part of the whole.

If a person wants to put business interests uppermost on their list of considerations when voting, they are free to do so.

Democracy, in its classical liberal sense, is based on the idea of one person, one vote.

The effect of this law is to reinstate a form of property test that takes us back to the Stuart period in British history when women were disenfranchised and only 10% of the population was allowed to vote.

As the late Greens MP Dr John Kaye said when the law was being debated in parliament: “The bill goes against thousands of years of trying to create a democracy where each individual has the right to vote, regardless of wealth or poverty, regardless of social background and regardless of whether they own a business”.

A separate question, sometimes conflated, is where people can vote.

Australia has three levels of government that are broken up into non-overlapping geographic regions. Voters are assigned to one of these based on their place of residence. Perhaps this is because it is where the bulk of a person’s interests lie. It is easier to administer and works well at the state and federal level, even though businesses operate across many state and federal electorates.

If business owners or employees feel that their interests lie less in their place of residence than in their place of business, then perhaps they should argue for a law that allows people to switch their vote from one to the other, thereby forgoing their usual residential vote.

To avoid inequality though, this option would have to be available to all eligible voters as well. It is worth noting, however, that such a change has never generated any significant interest, nor has it been promoted by supporters of the controversial change to voting in the City of Sydney.

The only other council in Australia with double votes for business is the City of Melbourne, where the Mayor is former Property Council CEO Sally Capp. Council has been unable to rule on development applications because the majority of councillors on 12 recent occasions had received donations from the developer concerned.

The risks of corruption are clear. Independent MP Alex Greenwich raised concerns in 2014 about the drafting of the City of Sydney voting bill and referred it to the Independent Commission Against Corruption.

Rubbing salt into the wound is the fact that the voting law now also requires the City of Sydney to maintain and update the non-residential roll. This amounts to a cost transfer from the state government to the City approaching $13 million.

Clearly, much is at stake.

Resident action groups Friends of Erskineville, REDWatch, Alexandria Residents Action Group and Chippendale Residents Interest Group are running an online petition and recently organised a public forum that passes a motion calling on Premier Dominic Perrottet to repeal the law.

They requested a response before the council election on December 4.

If we care about fairness and democracy, the people of NSW and residents of the City of Sydney must keep campaigning until business voting is relegated to the dustbin of history.

[Andrew Chuter is President of the Friends of Erskineville.]

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