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Defeated Liberal candidates behind push to gerrymander the City of Sydney Council elections

11 October 2014 No Comment

SOMETHING is rotten in the state of NSW. Last month, despite overwhelming community opposition, the NSW Liberal government joined with the Shooters and Fishers Party to pass legislation to manipulate votes in the City of Sydney.

In essence, the next City of Sydney council election will see every corporation that owns land or runs a business in the local area given two votes, while ordinary citizens get one.

In NSW there is no debate about whether businesses should vote in local council elections. As is the case in other council areas, businesses in the City of Sydney ­already had the right to vote.

Strangely, the recent changes have been orchestrated in the NSW parliament by the Shooters and Fishers Party.

The Melbourne model on which their push was based is not suited to Sydney.

The two cities use different systems to determine who pays rates to council. If the Shooters had their way and Melbourne’s legislation were transposed on Sydney holus-bolus, thousands of businesses would have lost their vote.

After those opposed to the bill pointed out this egregious error, some hurried amendments saved Shooters MLC Robert Borsak and NSW Local Government Minister and Liberal MP Paul Toole from shooting themselves in the foot.

However, another legislative change to the City of Sydney Act, also pushed by the Shooters, will see control of the next council election removed from the independent and highly respected NSW Electoral Commission.

The general manager of the City of Sydney will now have to ­establish a new bureaucracy to ­create the business roll. Businesses will be subjected to more red tape by requiring them to provide extensive and in some cases intrusive information. Those that don’t provide requested information face a $2200 fine, and businesses that don’t vote will be fined $55.

The new legislation throws Sydney back to a time when property ownership determined political power.

Not only that, it dramatically tilts the political landscape towards those who are willing to pander most openly to the desires of the business ­community.

The history of businesses voting in council elections has been chequered.

Hence, in 1995 the NSW Crown Solicitor warned of serious inaccuracies in the permanent electoral roll of businesses that could vote — which meant that it would be “unsafe to hold an election for the City of Sydney.

Just weeks before last month’s NSW legislation was passed, an independent review of the Victorian local government election process recommended major changes to business voting in Melbourne.

The review, chaired by respected former senior Liberal MP Petro Georgiou, recommended abandoning the Melbourne model because of major flaws.

Those pushing the bill in NSW parliament maintained that they simply wanted to make it easier for businesses in the city to vote.

However, the plain truth is that this legislation is about manipulating democracy and temporarily distracting citizens from the findings of the Independent Commission Against Corruption, which recently has exposed corrupt links between some members of the Liberal Party and big property ­developers.

Unlike what we’ve seen at ICAC, the City of Sydney Council — led by long-serving independent mayor Clover Moore — is not interested in development deals lubricated by large sums of money in brown paper bags.

An alternative business voting bill was introduced by independent state MP for Sydney Alex Greenwich, who replaced Moore in 2012 when rule changes in NSW forced her to resign as an MP.

Greenwich’s alternative bill would have ensured the roll for every council election was accurate. It also would have meant that businesses could choose whether they wanted to vote, a principle supported by the NSW ­Business Chamber, which has said compulsory voting is not ­necessary.

While the member for Sydney developed his bill through open negotiations and consultation, the Shooters and the Liberals worked behind the scenes in what seems an obvious ploy to return the City of Sydney Council to the Liberal Party.

During the past 10 years, under independent leadership, the City of Sydney has become one of the most desirable places in Australia to live and work. It is the fastest growing residential area in NSW. The previous census showed that 40 per cent of all new jobs created in the metropolitan area were in the City of Sydney.

Moreover, since 2004, Sydney council has approved $25 billion worth of ­development.

With businesses doing so well out of the City of Sydney, the question must be asked: who engineered the gerrymander to deliver them even more power, and why?

The only real supporters of this new legislation were the Shooters and Fishers Party and the Liberal-Nationals government.

This iniquitous plan was strongly opposed by community members, the ALP and the Greens.

Indeed, as a Labor member of the NSW parliament’s joint standing committee on electoral matters, MLC Amanda Fazio, made clear, some Liberal city councillors who did not like the result of the previous election were among those who pushed hardest for change.

“Undue weight was given to the evidence of two first-term Liberal councillors from the City of Sydney, said Fazio.

Many citizens disapprove of this brazen attempt to thwart democracy. Indeed, the state Liberals should understand that their machinations and skulduggery may come back to haunt them at the forthcoming NSW elections in late March next year.

Meanwhile, after 10 years as Lord Major of Sydney, and in the face of another clear attempt by the NSW Liberal government to undermine her, Moore has yet to decide whether she will run in the next council elections in 2016.

However, she has declared: “When they commit these acts of bastardry, it makes you want to fight on.

Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University.

The Weekend Australian, October 11-12, 2014, Inquirer, p 24.

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