Mike Baird should not be surprised by the drubbing the Liberal Party received in the recent NSW local government elections, because he had plenty of warning.
Local Government reform has been a controversial and hotly debated issue in communities across the state, including Canterbury, virtually from the day Mr Baird took over as NSW Premier. The changes to voting rights for the City of Sydney election were largely seen as a exercise in gerrymandering – a cynical, blatant power grab, in which the voices of residents would be drowned out by business that would not only be forced to vote, but forced to vote twice.
As a blunt weapon for ridding the city of Lord Mayor Clover, the Baird Government’s meddling with voting rights in the City of Sydney failed spectacularly. Of course, the Government has always denied that the changes were not motivated by political advantage. But even on their own specious reasoning, the City of Sydney voting reforms still fail to stack up.
The Baird Government claimed that the old system of business voting in the City of Sydney was cumbersome and involved “too many rules”. The new system however, has proven to be even more unwieldy and complicated than the one it replaced.
The absurdity of it all was highlighted when it emerged in the Sydney Morning Herald that the voting rights for the Fire Brigade Employees Union were mistakenly allocated to the wrong organisation – the Fire Brigade Employees Credit Union.
The changes have also proven to be extremely costly. As the Sydney Morning Herald’s Jacob Saulwick has noted, City of Sydney has already spent $12 million to set up the new electoral roll, and will be required to spend a whole lot more to keep the new roll permanently up-to-date. Council Officers will have to constantly gather information on businesses to maintain an accurate “continuing roll” of business voters – a layer of needless red tape the business community doesn’t want and doesn’t need.
What’s more, Council Officers will have the power to fine business owners $2,200 for failing to provide information. That’s not democracy, that’s simply revenue raising.
By the people, for the people
In State Parliament, the Baird Government also used the old American Revolution slogan of “no taxation without representation” to justify giving businesses more say in the election of Sydney councillors. It was a nice try – but to use the logic of the American Revolution to justify a system where those who pay more taxes get more votes is a distortion to make any student of politics blush.
If Mr Baird and his colleagues want to take inspiration from American political history, they should read up on Abraham Lincoln, who famously said that “a government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth.”
They could also go back further in history to understand the true meaning of democracy. The word democracy comes from the Greek word demokratia, meaning ‘the rule of the people”. Democracy combines “demos”, meaning people, and “kratos”, meaning power.
When this legislation was being debated in NSW Parliament in 2014, I argued that the reforms were not only undemocratic, they were not even supported by many in the business community.
Now that the election has been run and won – with a new council that looks very similar to the old council – it seems that the business community has ended up with the same representation, but a lot more taxation. And the Baird Government has ended up with a significant amount of egg on its face.
My colleague Shadow Minister for Local Government, Peter Primrose, has called the Local Government reforms a “dogs breakfast”, and so it has become. The Leader of the Opposition, Luke Foley, has now introduced a bill to Parliament to repeal the laws that give business two votes in the City of Sydney.
Despite all this, we know the State Government is considering extending the City of Sydney voting model to other areas, including Newcastle, Parramatta and the Illawarra. It may be hard to fathom why a Government would want to double down on this failed experiment, but the Mr Baird’s crash through or crash approach to council amalgamations has shown that he has a tin ear when it comes to the concerns of local communities.
Whether Mike Baird likes it or not, power ultimately lies with the people of NSW, and they will decide the fate, of his agenda and his Government. The sting of the local government defeats may fade, but if he fails to take stock and learn from the debacle, then his Government may be in for some long-term pain.
Mr Baird has been warned.
Sophie Cotsis is the Labor candidate for the upcoming Canterbury by-election.