Friday, July 5, 2019

Tasmanian Local Government Reform Proposals (2019)

The Tasmanian Government has been conducting a detailed review of local government legislation in the state, including electoral rules.  This week this took a major step forward with the release of the Reform Directions Paper.  This outlines a series of possible changes that, based on further feedback, may then appear in the government's draft legislation.  Many of the suggested changes are excellent, in particular reducing the number of boxes a voter must number on the councillor ballot for a valid vote.

My main reason for writing this article is to raise major concerns about some of the proposed options for electing mayors.  The paper gives four possible options for mayors, one of these being the status quo (the mayor is elected directly, anyone enrolled in the council area can run for mayor, the mayor must be elected as a councillor to serve as mayor).  While the status quo has some issues, I don't like any of the three alternatives much, and two of them are especially unsound.  I am writing this article mainly to provide detailed reasons as to why these options are bad, and I encourage anyone who wants to to use these arguments in their submissions, or add others.  While I'm doing this I may as well comment quickly on other aspects of the paper.

There's plenty of time to send a submission with submissions not due until 30 September.  For some reason the official closing time for submissions is 5 pm.  

Mayoral Election Options

The directions paper has given four options (items 7A-7D) under the heading " 7. Simplify the
election process for the positions of mayor and deputy mayor".  The paper doesn't commit to making changes for Mayor.  The arguments given for possible simplification are that the process of filling out two ballot papers (three actually) can be confusing and can result in a candidate being unable to accept the mayoralty or deputy mayoralty because they haven't been elected as a councillor.  It is also noted that confusion can increase informal voting (this is mainly caused by hopeless-case voters who try to vote across multiple ballot papers).  

So far in 25 years of postal voting there has actually never been a case of a candidate being elected as a mayor but not as a councillor, and with the new all-in-all-out system it is unlikely that this would occur.  In most cases the candidate elected Mayor is also elected 1 on the councillor ballot.  However, candidates elected as Deputy Mayor are not always elected on the councillor ballot, and a major reason for this is that often many of the most competitive candidates on the councillor ballot will run for Mayor.  

The argument about informal voting is weak as the recent rise in informal voting on councillor ballots (which shot up from 2.43% in 2011 to 4.49% in 2014 and 5.14% in 2018) was caused by inflexible formality rules combined with an increase in vacancy numbers, and exacerbated by high candidate numbers in some councils.  The directions paper proposes a reform that will largely solve the problem without needing to mess up the mayoral election system.

The real issue with directly elected mayors is that in some cases a mayor who is at odds with their council will be elected, and this has resulted in conflict that has led to councils being sacked.  However, I don't think there's a perfect solution to this.  It's best that candidates seeking to fundamentally change a council's direction understand that the best way to do this is to run a set of candidates with similar aims.  

Option 7B: Mayor Is Not A Councillor

Option 7A (discussed above) is the status quo, which I support for Mayoral elections.  Option 7B is to elect the Mayor separately so that candidates can run for Mayor or Councillor, but not both.  (The elected Mayor becomes a councillor automatically).  

I oppose option 7B because it means that an incumbent Councillor cannot run for Mayor without taking the risk that they will lose their seat on Council if unsuccessful.  Many councillors would not take the risk, either because they would be risking their payments as a councillor or because they are motivated by political or social goals they want to achieve using their position on council.  It should be extremely obvious that this will weaken competition for mayoral positions and reduce elector choice between candidates who could be genuinely competitive.  It is also likely to increase the number of cases in which mayors without a previous knowledge of a council's workings are elected from off council, which could lead to conflicts between mayors and councillors.   

The paper mentions that this option exists in Queensland and SA.  At a quick check of SA 2018 results Mayors were often returned against only one opponent or in some cases unopposed.  In Queensland mayors with no previous experience as mayor or councillor are commonly elected in this system, with a high rate of mayoral turnover.  

Option 7C: First Elected Councillor Becomes Mayor

Option 7C is that "the candidate who is elected first, from the ballot for candidates, would automatically be elected as mayor." The argument given for it is "This reform retains the concept of a popularly elected mayor, without the necessity of voting twice. The Tasmanian Electoral Commission advises that this form of voting would be simple to administer and would reduce costs as there would only be one ballot"  This would indeed be simple to administer but that is about its only merit.  Unfortunately it falls in the category of solutions that are simple, elegant and actually a really bad idea.  

Firstly, the candidate elected first as a councillor may not actually want to be mayor, so presumably the position would have to go to the first willing candidate.  But that then creates a problem: if a voter votes for a person as councillor knowing that that person does not want to be mayor, then they have wasted their vote so far as the mayoral contest is concerned.  This also applies if a voter votes for a candidate who they like as a councillor but who is unlikely to top the ballot.  If such a voter wants to have a say in the mayoral contest, they cannot vote 1 for their preferred councillor candidate.  Although some part of their vote could well still flow to that candidate as a surplus, it will be diluted.

It's also possible a voter might think that candidate X is their favourite candidate for councillor but isn't up to being Mayor just yet, while candidate Y who is third or fourth on their councillor ballot would make the best Mayor.  This system deprives the voter of the ability to express that judgement.

The proposal also misses the point that order of election in a multi-member single transferrable vote election isn't necessarily a proof of electoral merit.  The point of the order of election isn't to rank the candidates; it's just to stop them receiving unnecessary votes as soon as their election is mathematically certain.  

In general the candidate topping a councillor poll will receive a quota of votes, so the race to be elected 1 on a councillor ballot is effectively first past the post.  Not surprisingly, this throws up many of the tactical voting dilemmas that make first past the post an undemocratic system.  For instance, a candidate may top the poll not because they are the most liked by voters, but because they are the only strong candidate for a particular point of view, while another point of view may have several strong supporters who will all be elected but will split the primary vote up more between them.

An example of the practical problems with this system can be seen in the 2018 Southern Midlands election. The first three Councillor candidates on primaries were Karen Dudgeon with 497 votes, incumbent Mayor Tony Bisdee on 493 and Alex Green on 456.  Quota was 364 so these were all elected on primaries, in the order 1 Dudgeon, 2 Bisdee, 3 Green.  But Dudgeon was not an incumbent Councillor and had not chosen to run for Mayor or Deputy.  By the order of election method Bisdee would be second in line (and he was only a few votes short of being first anyway).  However Green defeated Bisdee in the actual mayoral ballot decisively after preferences, by a margin exceeding 54-46.   In the actual mayoral ballot Bisdee led Green on primaries but Green got more than twice as many preferences as Bisdee.  Clearly in the Councillor ballot opposition to Bisdee was spread among voters for several candidates.  

Hopefully this option won't be seen again after this discussion paper.

Option 7D: Round-Table Election

The final option is the one in which mayors are elected round the table by fellow councillors.  This does simplify the voting process by getting rid of direct mayoral elections, but the cost is that the position as leader of the community is filled without a direct mandate and as a result of unaccountable backroom deals by a handful of councillors.  (This process was immortalised in the documentary Rats in the Ranks and also the political satire Grass Roots.)  In theory it increases the chance of a mayor being able to work with their council, but a mayor elected by the majority of their council could still fall out with supporters on it later (especially if they welshed on the deal that got them the job), and the composition of councils can change.  I don't see sufficient reason to switch to this system.

The rest of the paper

Here's a quick run through of other interesting issues raised by the paper:

* Reform 3 is to establish separate electoral legislation for local government.  This is an excellent suggestion.

* Reform 5 proposes to restrict General Manager's Roll voting to Australian citizens.

* Reform 6 proposes to prevent voters from getting multiple votes per municipality.  (This could happen if, for instance, a voter was a resident and a corporate nominee).  I support this reform.

* Reform 7 would make deputy mayoral elections round-the-table.  I did oppose this earlier in the process, but am no longer that clearly opposed to it following the Ron Christie Dark Mofo debacle and after considering the weak mandate some deputy mayors receive because many of the top candidates run for mayor.  I had another possible solution to that problem that may have been a bit complicated.  Another alternative would be to keep deputy mayoral elections but to have a round-table vote whenever a stand-in mayor is required.

* Reform 8 proposes "Enabling electronic voting when the technology becomes viable [..] The most appropriate voting method would be chosen by the Minister 12 months prior to the local government elections."  I don't like this one, because I am unconvinced based on my reading of expert evidence that electronic voting is anywhere near being adequately secure from hacking.  Governments tend to jump into electronic voting to save money while ignoring security issues.  I would prefer not to see such a clause (except perhaps one limited to small-scale overseas voting) until a form of secure electronic voting has been developed and shown to be secure over many years. 

* Reform 9 is music to my ears - it proposes to reduce the number of preferences required for a formal vote to 5 (consistent with state lower house elections).  This alone would be likely to restore the informal voting rate to something like what it was prior to all-in all-out.  This proposal deserves strong support as it or something like it is essential to the credibility of these elections.

* Reform 10 proposes caretaker provisions to stop councils doing silly stuff during the election period.  Seems like a no-brainer.

* Reform 11 looks like another no-brainer - moving the administration of General Manager's Rolls to the TEC.

* Reform 12 introduces pre-nomination training.  Good idea.
* Reform 13 is another one I have supported - it introduces deposits of $100 for Councillor or $250 for Mayor and Deputy if still subject to election.  Deposits are necessary to remove the risk of several dozen activists or pranksters spoiling an election by all nominating for it.  One change I would make is to also refund the deposit if a candidate is elected, as candidates do sometimes win councillor positions with less than 4% of the primary vote.

* Reform 14 requires all candidates to declare gifts and donations during the electoral period.  Good idea.

* Reform 16 prevents city councils from using the title "Alderman" for councillors.  The title is often considered sexist and outmoded, though this is sometimes disputed.  This has led to a bizarre situation on Hobart City Council in which members are allowed to title themselves either Councillor or Alderman.  

* Reform 19 removes the ability of residents to force a elector polls and public meetings via petition.  I support this change as in my view elector polls have often been a waste of money (especially where the question wordings are flawed or the issue irrelevant to the council in question) and a mere 5% of residents of an area should not be able to force such an expense.  

* An issue that has disappeared for the moment is reform to remove restrictions on naming candidates without their permission.  However it has been flagged that more issues than those covered in the Paper may be addressed in the draft legislation.

I may add more comments later.

1 comment:

  1. In my humble opinion the first place to start with council reform is to get rid of half of them. 29 councils for a population that is approximately the same as Geelong is ridiculous.