It’s polling day here in NSW today – the whole state votes together for our local councils.
Back in 2000, the NSW government changed the electoral rules for local councils in a way which significant improved the chances of political parties ahead of genuine independents.
What they did is outlined here in the NSW Electoral Commission website. Candidates can now form groups with other candidates. That means that if anyone does it, instead of electors being faced with a choice of (in my case) seven candidates for three positions in the ward, electors are faced with a choice of two groups and “ungrouped candidates”. Groups can be named if they are part of a registered political party. If they aren’t part of a party, they can’t be named. While they were at it, they stopped already elected councillors from being able to have their own political party purely by virtue of having previously been elected.
So there is a clear hierarchy of types of candidate naturally appearing on a ballot paper – political parties first (because they are named) groups second (because groups appear more serious and organised) and individuals third.
In state or federal politics, that kind of hierarchy is probably deserved – if you aren’t serious enough to register a political party, you probably aren’t taking the issues seriously.
But in local politics, in my experience, the best councillors are often the genuine independents. Individuals who are trying to do the best for their local areas, and aren’t particularly party political. Certainly the platform of the major parties has very little to say about real local issues – what kind of development should be allowed, how should parking be organised, and what kind of funding the library should get compared with playgrounds.
But the genuine independent will find it hardest to be elected with a grouping system. Their best chance is to join an established group, or to create a fake one of their own (with a couple of friends who are willing to fill out their ticket), which then creates the tablecloth ballot papers that have been such a horrible feature of the NSW upper house in recent elections.
So the political establishment changed the rules at a higher level to make it easier for themselves and their friends to get elected to local council. I wouldn’t mind so much if it had left us with a competent set of councillors. But it hasn’t. A very casual look at the state of local government in NSW will make you realise that making it easier for party hacks to be elected has not raised the average quality of the elected councillors.