Thursday, June 21, 2018

Tas Councils: Is The Deputy Election System Dudding Us?

This article is not so much brought to you as provoked by Hobart's Lord Mayor Ron Christie, who today caved in to a campaign from sectors (by no means all) of the Tasmanian and interstate religious right.  Following an outcry about upside-down red crosses on the Hobart waterfront, Christie criticised the Dark Mofo music and art festival, suggesting it was no longer "family friendly" (was it ever?) and that the Council may cease funding this very successful visitor drawcard.  It doesn't appear Christie necessarily speaks for the Council on this matter, and certainly nor did he when he became remarkably keen on a proposal for co-naming Hobart "nipaluna" (a stance rather at odds with his opportunistic criticism of Mike Parr's three-day burial performance by the way, given the intended meanings of that artwork).  The Ron Christie I knew a little in the early 2000s was quite the zany freethinker and I suspect would have loved Dark Mofo to bits.  I can only wonder what has occurred!

Christie's strange performances as Lord Mayor brought to my mind the issue of how he came to be Mayor in the first place despite achieving very little voter support at the 2014 Council elections, and reminded me of an issue I've considered now and then before with the way Deputy Mayors are elected in our local government system.  I believe that the way in which we elect Deputy Mayors, while simple to follow, is letting our Councils down in situations like this, and that there are probably better solutions.  As an introduction for readers unfamiliar with the system, candidates for election as councillors (aldermen) can run for Mayor or Deputy Mayor, but not both.  A single preferential election is held for each of those positions, with the constraint that the winner must also claim a seat on council in the multi-member Hare-Clark election for Councillor seats.  In 2014, for the first time, candidates for Mayor and Deputy were no longer required to have served on a council before.

Ron Christie is Lord Mayor until October because Sue Hickey resigned the position on account of her election to State Parliament.  When the Lord Mayor resigns close enough to the next election, no by-election is held.  The existing Deputy Mayor is promoted and a new Deputy is elected "Rats In The Ranks" style by fellow Councillors.

2014: Who Hobart Voted For

At the 2014 Hobart City Council election, Sue Hickey was elected as Lord Mayor, narrowly defeating incumbent Damon Thomas.  The other mayoral candidates were former Deputy Lord Mayor Helen Burnet (Greens), Green alderman Philip Cocker, and newcomer Suzy Cooper (who won an aldermanic seat but resigned mid-term).

There were 11 candidates for Deputy Mayor, including sitting incumbent and sitting alderman Christie, sitting aldermen Jeff Briscoe, Marti Zucco, Eva Ruzicka, Peter Sexton, Bill Harvey (Greens), former Liberal state candidate Tanya Denison (who was very narrowly elected as an alderman) and four minor candidates from the Christie ticket whose bids for Deputy Mayor appeared to be a bizarre (and unsuccessful) preference-harvesting attempt.

Christie polled 2970 primaries for Deputy Lord Mayor (15.7%), trailing only Harvey (3454, 18.6%).  As the cutup progressed, preferences pooled with more politically mainstream candidates than Harvey and Christie went on to defeat Harvey easily.  (Harvey also lost his Council seat, but got it back on Cooper's countback.)

It is when we look at the Councillor primaries that we see something really interesting.  The man who is now Lord Mayor polled only eleventh on Councillor primaries, with just 455 votes (2.6%) in his own right.  He was even outpolled on primaries by two candidates who failed to be elected as councillors.  It's not all about primaries, of course, and Christie did very well on the surplus votes of Sue Hickey and Damon Thomas, and as a result was fourth elected as a councillor.  Nonetheless he still had less than 6% of the aldermanic vote even after the surpluses of Hickey, Thomas and Burnet, who were far and away the three most popular councillors.  It was hardly a convincing performance for someone who is now the city's leader.

A Systematic Problem

A look at the other council results around the state shows that in general, those elected Deputy Mayor under the new all-in, all-out system did not set the electoral world on fire.  There were 25 Councils that had contested elections for all of Mayor, Deputy and Councillors in 2014.

Naturally, those candidates elected Mayor did well on the aldermanic ballots too.  In 23 of these 25 cases, they topped the aldermanic primary vote ballot, the exceptions being Glamorgan-Spring Bay (Michael Kent 3rd) and Kingborough (Steve Wass 5th, but still with a quota).

It might stand to reason that the Deputy Mayor would be the second most popular person on the Council but only one elected Deputy Mayor under the new system made that intuition stick.  That was Mark Jones (Southern Midlands).  On the aldermanic ballots, the remaining 24 Deputies achieved eleven third places, seven fourth places, five fifth places and one sixth place - and this is after preferences, not just on primaries.  Bear in mind that this is not like the Senate - preference flows between candidates are rather weak, so the position in which someone is elected is probably a good indication of how popular they are or are not.

My critique of the system has been that often talented people who would make good stand-in Mayors miss out because they run for Mayor, lose, and therefore don't make the leadership team at all, while the Deputy position may get snaffled by someone with mediocre popular appeal.  It seems that under the new system this may have become more likely.  Indeed, of these 25 Councils there were 21 cases of at least one failed Mayoral contender outpolling the successful Deputy on the aldermanic ballot, including eight cases where two did.  (There was only one elected Deputy who outpolled their Mayor as an alderman, and that was Paula Wriedt (Kingborough), a former state MP).  There were 19 councils where a failed Mayoral contender finished second behind the Mayor on the aldermanic ballot, to only the one where a successful Deputy did.

If Councils were all factionalised into left-right camps, such that the successful Deputy Mayor typically came from the same side of politics as the winning Mayor, while the main defeated challenger came from a faction with minority public support, then this would all be to be expected.  But local councils are generally not like that.  More often what happens is simply that the most popular two or three aldermen will run for Mayor because being Mayor for four years is the big prize and it is worth going for it if there seems to be a realistic chance.  Running for Deputy makes more sense for those who have little chance of winning the top job.

It might be argued (and I suspect it was true in 2014) that running for Mayor actually in itself makes a candidate perform better on the aldermanic ballot (unless they are an absolute no-hoper), and that the candidates for Deputy would do better as aldermen if they were also running for Mayor.  But if that's the case, my proposed alternative would cater for that.

An Alternative

Here is how the system for electing Mayors and Deputies could be fixed to ensure that the candidates with the most popular support are elected to both positions, and that popular aldermen no longer have to choose between a risky shot at Mayor and a less risky shot at Deputy.

Each council could have a single Mayor/Deputy Mayor ballot paper for both leadership positions.  A candidate for Mayor or Deputy Mayor could nominate for either of the positions or both.  The election would then be counted using the same ballot papers - twice.

The first round of counting would  include all the candidates who have nominated for Mayor.  If any candidate had not nominated for Mayor, they would be excluded at the start of the ballot and all their preferences would be distributed to the next available candidate who did nominate.  The primary count and, if needed, preference distribution would then be carried out until the Mayor is elected.

The second round of counting would include all the candidates who have nominated for Deputy, except the Mayor.  The Mayor, and any candidate who has not nominated for Deputy, would be excluded at the start of the ballot, and their preferences would be distributed to the next available candidate who did nominate.  The primary count and, if needed, preference distribution would then be carried out until the Deputy Mayor is elected.

(A similar idea - see comment by reader mstj - is to keep the current two ballots and allow candidates to run for both Mayor and Deputy if they want to.  In this version, the candidate elected Mayor is excluded from the Deputy ballot at the start of counting and all their preferences are transferred to the next available candidate.)


The advantages of this system should be clear - it makes candidates available to be elected to either position, which is good for the candidates and also good for the voter.  What are the drawbacks?

Firstly the system would obviously lead to more people running for both Mayor and Deputy, which could lead to much longer counts for these elections.  However, this problem could be reduced by introducing deposits for running for leadership elections.  I was baffled to find out that in fact no deposit is required to run for local government in Tasmania (indeed there is currently nothing to deter some bunch of people from horribly pranking the system by nominating hundreds of candidates for the same council).  Set a deposit for running for Mayor or Deputy, to be refunded only if the candidate is elected or has at least, say, 10% of the primary vote on at least one of the ballots.

Secondly a voter might be unsure about how to vote if they perceived, for some reason, that a particular candidate who is running for both positions would be a terrible Mayor but a great Deputy, or a great Mayor but a terrible Deputy.  This isn't a particularly likely perception, and in the first case it would be somewhat irrational since anyone elected Deputy could potentially become a stand-in Mayor.  Nonetheless, it's true that the system doesn't cater for it.  However, as it is, a voter who thinks a certain candidate would be excellent as either Mayor or Deputy cannot express that view for both positions.  Also, if a voter thinks that the top two contenders for Mayor would be the ideal choice as Mayor and Deputy, they cannot express that view either.  So I think more is gained than would be lost in terms of choices that a voter can make by this proposal.

Incidentally, since ballots for Mayor and Deputy are by optional preferential voting, this system would not lead to increased informal voting.  However, the instructions on the ballot paper should instruct voters to vote for at least two candidates.

Another Alternative

Another option is to simply stop electing Deputy Mayors by popular vote, and have them always elected by the Councillors.  The advantage of that is that any Councillor who is defeated in the Mayoral ballot still has some chance to become Deputy.  The disadvantage is that the position is no longer popularly elected.  However, that argument loses some of its force given that, in many cases, the person who the voters might most like to have as Deputy Mayor is not available for the position anyway, because they are running for Mayor.

I hope this article encourages some consideration about how we elect Deputy Mayors and whether we could and should do better.  I hope it also makes one other thing clear: when it comes to Dark Mofo, Ron Christie does not speak for me!

(Footnote: There has also been one full Council election since 2014, the early election this year in Glenorchy.  That one, conducted under highly unusual circumstances, bucked the trend in that Matt Stevenson, elected Deputy Mayor, was also second on the aldermanic ballot.  Based on his massive preference flow from the winner on the aldermanic ballot, he would also have won easily under the alternative system.)


  1. What are your thoughts on the impact of absolute novices to council systems having access to be elected to Mayor/Deputy Major? Do you think its an advantage to the community? Or do you think its creating a lot of 'noise'

  2. Probably both. On balance I think it is beneficial because:

    (i) It keeps incumbent Mayors on their toes since they might at any time face a high-profile challenger from outside the council system, so they can't assume they have the job for life once they have the measure of the rest of their council.

    (ii) It gives candidates trying to break into local government another strategic option for trying to lift their profile. That helps because some councils have been very difficult to get onto from the outside.

    There are risks associated with it. One is that you get a Mayor who doesn't understand that the Mayor is just another councillor when it comes to the voting, and who might be resented by the existing councillors for coming in over the top of them from outside. (There might be something like this in the Glamorgan-Spring Bay conflicts; I haven't looked that closely.) The other is that some council might elect some local celebrity as Mayor who basically has no idea what they are doing in local government (this hasn't happened yet.)

    As noted in the article I think there should be a deposit to discourage candidates from running for Mayor/Deputy (and for that matter councillor) if they're not serious candidates.

  3. Dare I suggest that it would be much simpler to just keep the current system, and allow people to run for both Mayor and Deputy? Of course, the candidate elected Mayor would be excluded first from the deputy count. Are there any problems with this?

    1. Yes that's also an option and avoids one of the problems with my suggestion (which is that someone might want to express a view that someone is a good mayor but a bad deputy, or vice versa). The only complication I can see with it is that candidates would have to campaign for both positions and convince their supporters to vote for the same person on all the ballots. Voters might not realise one could vote for the same person for both positions.

  4. Thanks for this analysis, Kevin. I think your first alternative is a good one it would offer better options for voters and increase the likelihood of a quality Deputy being elected.

  5. Is there a greater risk that if two ambitious and popular people are elected to the positions, their rivalry may distract them from working effectively together? I’d imagine is Damon Thomas was deputy to Sue Hickey there would’ve plenty of fodder for the Mercury.

    1. There is a risk of this. However, I don't think it matters greatly. The primary role of the Deputy Mayor is to fill in for the Mayor when the Mayor is unavailable. In other respects they are just another councillor in terms of the extent to which they have to work with the Mayor (or not). It's not that similar to a political party where the deputy leader is strongly expected to behave loyally and back up the leader.

      Also, it's possible that if Mayoral candidates who do well but fall short win the Deputy Mayor position, that consolation might actually help reduce the level of personal bitterness that often follows the defeat of an incumbent Mayor. Assuming they are able to win it, that is.

  6. As you say, Kevin, currently It is a choice candidates make as to whether they’ll contest the position of mayor or deputy. Frustrating as that may seem, it is also a decision made on many grounds, both personal and political.
    When I stood for and then was elected Deputy Lord Mayor, it was effectively my second term on Council. The incumbent Lord Mayor was Rob Valentine, whose popular vote was at least 2 quotas, and he wasn’t going anywhere soon. Standing for the deputy mayor position made sense: I wasn’t cocky enough to contest the mayoral position after a relatively short time on Council, I’d racked up experience in other leadership roles both on Council and in previous work and volunteer organisations which I thought may prove useful. The 2-I-C role would help me gain valuable experience on how the organisation works, which it did. During that time, I stepped in as Acting Lord Mayor, and also played the support role to the Lord Mayor at events or ambassadorial visits Rob couldn’t attend.
    This year I’ll be running for the Deputy Lord Mayor again. I like the position, have the time and commitment, and even more experience. Bill Harvey will be running as the Greens’ mayoral candidate, and if successful, I believe we offer strong, credible leadership.
    One could argue that the role of deputy takes a different skills set to that of mayor. There may be reason why a candidate would put their hand up for deputy over mayor. This shouldn’t be discounted, as it isn’t always about the top job.
    Recent history suggests that in their roles as Lord Mayor and Deputy, Sue Hickey and Ron Christie worked diligently for the city, and their time commitment to those roles was very high. The teamwork was evident and the support and loyalty that Ron Christie as Deputy provided was rock solid.
    There is more to leadership than just two working as a team, something for another discussion perhaps, and there are certainly different approaches available to bring the rest of the aldermen along, in what can be a very politically charged environment.
    When Sue was elected to state parliament , the mechanism triggered was that if the mayor resigns within six months before a Council election, the deputy automatically takes the helm. Recent comments aside, in theory this is sound practice for such a relatively short time: Ald Christie knew the job backwards, and it avoided an expensive by election.
    Sue’s departure and subsequently Ron’s move to the big chair also set in motion the appointment of the short-term Deputy Lord Mayor, a vote around the table by the remaining councillors. In theory, three and a half years into a four year term this appointment should be a sensible choice for the best candidate. Whilst I supported Bill Harvey over the current Deputy Lord Mayor - the vote was 5-6 - I wonder if the vote would’ve been different if aldermen had realised that the current deputy would be away overseas for over a month of that 6 month appointment?
    You also make some interesting observations about the last election. There is another point about the votes. The fourth highest vote winner of the 2014 Hobart City Council election was....Informal. The number of informal votes (1418) was higher than a quota, and many more primary votes than 75% of those elected to Council. Tas Electoral Commission, we have a problem. Whilst the field was large, that’s a helluva a lot of people of the 51% of eligible voters who filled out their ballot papers, whose vote didn’t count. Interestingly, voters were more accurate when casting their vote for mayor and deputy.
    More reason for people to ensure they are enrolled to vote, that they do cast their vote-and carefully-to elect a Lord Mayor, Deputy and Council they want to represent them!

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  8. Thanks Helen for that very considered comment.

    Regarding informal votes, the reason for the difference is that for Lord Mayor and Deputy anything with a single 1 will typically be formal; there is no requirement to number all the boxes. But for Councillors, the voters must number 1 to the number of vacancies without repeating or omitting any number in that sequence. When, as with Hobart, that means 1 to 12, the potential for mistakes (or for the voter thinking "I can only find 10, surely that's good enough", which it isn't) is very high.

    I think this level of votes being counted as informal as a result of inflexible legislation in the Local Government Act is scandalous and I put in a submission about it to the review of the LGA, but (seemingly as it had been decided to conduct a "targeted review" only) the issue was ignored. This was despite it being recommended for action by the Legislative Council committee into the Electoral Commission. (To make it clear the Electoral Commission are not to blame for the legislation being as it is.)

    Not only TEC but candidates as well need to work hard to convince voters to number at least the right number of councillor boxes with each number once and once only, because the government has failed to fix this problem. Unless that is the government fixes it now; I am sure there is still time.

  9. I agree with you that people should be able to stand for Mayor and Deputy. I previously lost the election for Mayor by 3 votes, with the second highest mayoral vote, and even though I obtained the highest vote for Alderman was not able to be Deputy Mayor. As part of the Legislative Council TEC Inquiry the recommendation was made -
    17. The Government pursue with the TEC, in consultation with Local Government, whether candidates should be given the opportunity to stand for both Mayor and Deputy Mayor.

  10. Will you be doing an analysis of candidates for 2018 Hobart City Council elections? Would be very much appreciated!

    1. Yes I will have a candidate guide and also commentary on the count. I'm not certain I'll have all the candidates up on the day nominations are released because of an overseas trip, but I should at least have them up by the time voting starts.