Council elections are coming up. Ballots will be posted out all over the State from October 6, and votes must be put in the mail by October 23. Candidate nominations are complete, and while there are regions in the State with electorates with zero nominations, that is very far from the case in Nillumbik. There are seven single member wards in the Shire, and a total of seventy nine candidates have nominated:
Voting is preferential, and all candidates must be ranked. Or all candidates but the last one, since the missing number may be inferred. A large number of candidates historically has resulted in a high informal vote, due in part to errors in entering the sequence. Informal votes in Bunjil, Sugarloaf and Wingrove are expected to be in the vicinity of 10%.
The reason for the high number of candidates is not that so many people wish to serve as councillors. It is that the voting system employed encourages ‘running mates’, candidates who are not serious about winning, but who aim to direct preferences to a lead candidate.
Unfortunately we tend not to be well informed about the choice before us at council election time. In part this is because of the decline of local newspapers, so regular reporting is scarce. It is also because in the relative absence of party politics we don’t have the option of voting for a preferred political party. And in this time of lockdown candidates are not allowed to doorknock, and public events are impossible.
So we are confronted with the task of ranking individuals about whom we may know no more than what we can glean from the 300 word statements that are mailed to us with the ballot paper.
A perennial favourite in candidate statements is a promise to keep rates low. This sounds attractive, but is largely meaningless. Rate increases are capped by the State, at present to 2% per year – for the average property, that’s $40, one cheap coffee per month. Sound financial management is imperative, but the key issue is well-directed expenditure and competent debt management, not empty promises.
Any candidate without horns will gain a few votes. Most and probably all candidates will have a how to vote card, in which they indicate how they wish our preferences to be allocated. A genuine candidate who can organize a number of friends or supporters to be candidates will benefit from their preferences. What this means, unfortunately, is that to be successful a candidate must have running mates, which leads to the situation we see, in which most of Nillumbik’s seventy nine candidates are running mates.
This is not a satisfactory situation but we seem to be stuck with it. The Victorian Electoral Commission conducts an electoral review every twelve years, and a review was conducted last year. The issues it addresses are the total number of councillors and the electoral structure of the Shire. More than half of the public submissions were in favour of either an undivided Shire or a multi-member ward structure. This would have introduced proportional representation, which most saw as an improvement, but the VEC opted to stay with the single member ward structure anyway. It is not within the review’s terms of reference to consider a change to the preferential voting system. Result: in this election we must cope with eighteen candidates in the central Eltham ward of Wingrove, and sixteen in rural Sugarloaf.
Regular high profile scandals indicate the danger of various degrees and flavours of corruption in local government, always connected with the lure of potential profits from the relaxation or bypassing of planning controls. It can be impossible to discern the motivation of a candidate about whom we have no prior knowledge. And there may be significant differences in candidates’ visions for the Shire, and these too can be hidden in candidate statements and marketing designed to be all things to all men – and women.
So our voting choice is important. We are finalizing our candidate review, and will be publishing our recommendations at the weekend.