Friday, 17 September 2010

Make Melbourne Democratic

Melbourne Town Hall

The City of Melbourne provides local government representation for about 90,000 residents. Local government is important and valuable: it makes decisions on issues very close to the community, and has the capacity to be very responsive to the community.

In Melbourne, as the capital city of Victoria, there are also many businesses both small and large, and the Melbourne City Council must also consider their needs.

To have a strong connection between the community and local government, it is important to have the best possible electoral system. The electoral system for the City of Melbourne has several unusual features.

1. It is a postal ballot, so there's only limited information and often no real sense of the amount of community support particular candidates enjoy, and what's more the Victorian Electoral Commission has acknowledged that it does not have the power to check the authenticity of the signature or the date of birth on the envelope containing the ballot paper. Postal ballots are notoriously open to abuse: we should consider a return to attendance polling;

2. Businesses get two votes - even if the owners live outside the country. The nominees of the business do not even have to be shareholders. It's not clear how this weighting can be justified - especially for those without a genuine link to the community: it should be citizens who elect the Council;

3. There are no ward councillors: the whole electorate elects all of the councillors, so no one representative has responsibility for a particular neighbourhood;

4. Despite the size of the municipality, which runs from Kensington to East Melbourne, there are only nine councillors: that's a big workload for each councillor.

5. There are two separate elections - one for the Lord Mayor and Deputy, and another for seven other councillors: a candidate must choose which ballot to contest. That's not a good way to maximize the talent pool for the council. And it also means that only those with a large campaign budget are able to win the Lord Mayoralty;

6. There is a "deeming provision" under which many voters are deemed enrolled even though they have not applied and frequently do not even know they are on the roll;

7. Above-the-line voting is permitted for the councillors, so that voters need only vote for one candidate. A better system would require voters to number the squares for at least the number of positions for election (currently seven).

8. There are no requirements to disclose election funding sources.

For residents, there is no councillor who is dedicated to serving their local needs. With the small number of councillors, it is hard for councillors to respond to all the concerns that are raised.

It is time for a review of the Council. It is the only council which does not automatically have a regular review under the Local Government Act. That review should also reconsider the electoral system, and the effectiveness of local representation.

The Council has itself requested a review on more than one occasion, but has not had a satisfactory response from the State government.

A review is an important opportunity for improvement of our local government system: Melbourne deserves this no less than any other municipality.

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