Have your say on local government participation and elections
With the ink not-yet dry on the current round of local government reforms, the State Government have taken the first steps to begin the next round.
With the stated aim of increasing participation in local elections and local democracy, the Office of Local Government (OLG) has provided its Local Government Participation and Elections Review Discussion Paper (the Discussion Paper) which can be accessed here.
The public is invited to provide their response to the matters raised in the Discussion Paper, or in relation to improving participation in local government generally, by 1 March 2024.
Our local government readers will be in a position to provide unique insight into the matters discussed in the Discussion Paper and as such we encourage you to participate.
There are four main topics considered in the Discussion Paper, from which stem some simple and some controversial ideas.
1. How people engage and participate with their council
The OLG seeks feedback on how to increase participation between people and their local councils.
As part of this process, the OLG is seeking feedback on the manner in which the Community Engagement Charter, which will replace councils’ current public consultation policies should e formed. The intention being to enable councils to adopt a more fit-for-purpose approach to public consultation.
The discussion paper also asks whether attendance at council meetings can be improved, for example by requiring them to be livestreamed or held at a particular time to maximise community participation.
2. How to encourage greater numbers and more diverse candidates
The State Government has taken the view that council elections often struggle to attract candidates to fill all vacancies, and attract a diverse range of candidates.
The OLG has offered a number of options which they say could attract more people to the role, such as increasing council members’ allowances, making council meetings more flexible by allowing council members to attend meetings electronically, further promoting nominations for council elections, introducing term limits, introducing training for candidates, publishing nominations in real time, and removing council wards.
It’s not expressly clear how each of these proposals will necessarily encourage a greater number of candidates and some of the proposals, if enacted, will fundamentally change how our councils are constituted and council members perform their roles. Careful thought needs to be given to changes in this space.
In our view, proposals such as the holding of electronic council meetings, the imposition of term limits and the abolition of wards require the closest scrutiny.
Council meetings are serious occasions where statutory powers are exercised, taxes levied and local laws made. With permeant electronic council meetings, there is a real risk that the sense of occasion and the seriousness of the task performed at council meetings could be diminished, as could the sense of camaraderie formed by working as a group together, in a common place. Managing sensitive and confidential information in this environment also requires careful thought. There is already the flexibility built into the system to allow councils to meet electronically in special circumstances. Do we need to go further?
The forced imposition of term limits has the potential, over time, to diminish rather than strengthen the pool of available candidates, particularly in regional areas. It also has the potential to decrease voter choice and mean voters miss out on the opportunity to elect their first choice candidate.
The adoption of wards by councils in this State is already voluntary. Councils are the tier of government closest to the community, and yet some councils are many times larger than State electorates. The wholesale abandonment of wards has the potential to remove the ‘local’ from local government – diminishing the sector’s greatest strength. If a community thinks wards don’t fit their needs, councils are free to abolish them now at the local level – removing this choice from local communities requires careful thought.
3. How to increase voter turnout; and
The Discussion Paper provides a number of ideas to increase voter turnout including:
- make voting in council elections compulsory (as it is in most other jurisdictions in Australia);
- returning to in-person voting while maintaining postal voting;
- changing who is eligible to vote in council elections;
- changing the timing of council elections to reduce voter fatigue;
- improving election promotion methods; and
- providing more information to voters about candidates (e.g. National Police Checks).
Of these, compulsory voting presents as the greatest possible shift. Readers should turn their mind to whether such a change would be a net-positive or negative for their communities.
4. How to make sure that council elections are run efficiently, with the highest level of integrity.
The OLG will also consider feedback from the Electoral Commissioner as part of his review of the 2022 period council elections. You are also invited to provide any other ideas you may have to improve council elections.
The outcome of this consultation process will be published in May 2024. From there, we anticipate legislative reform will be proposed. We will provide further updates to the sector as this new legislative review process progresses.
Should you wish to discuss any of the matters discussed in this article, please contact Felice D’Agostino on +61 8 8210 1202 or email@example.com or Dale Mazzachi on +61 8 8210 1223 or firstname.lastname@example.org.