The Premier and the Minister for Local Government today announced their response to the Local Government Advisory Board’s (LGAB) recommendations relating to Metropolitan Local Government Reform. There is one aspect which is highly worrying to me, and that is the abolition of the ward system for a number of local governments.
The City of Bayswater, as well as many other local governments, operate under a ward system. A ward is a subdivision of a local government area and is used typically for electoral purposes. For instance I am a Councillor for Bayswater’s Central Ward, and it is the residents of Central Ward who elect me.
I have read through the LGAB’s report and compiled the following table:
As can be seen, every local government in the table which made a submission to the LGAB requested a ward system for their respective new entity. Yet, despite unanimous requests, this will only occur in two regions.
The importance of a ward system cannot be overstated, and a few of the reasons are listed below:
1. Politicisation – This is the first step towards the politicisation of local governments along the State and Federal party system. Running an election campaign is expensive, and whilst a ward involves electioneering to, say, 10,000 people, a City wide campaign will involve electioneering to over 100,000 people. The cost may be tenfold and the only way this will be achievable is in a group ticket with political party financial support. You can expect to see tickets of Liberal, Labor and Greens at either the next local government election, or the one after. Politicising local governments, and having Councillors who must toe the party line rather than vote how they think is best for the local government, will not be beneficial for the rate payers. In addition it may create segments of the Council who will not liaise with State and Federal members of a different political party.
2. Ineffective representation – It is generally the larger local governments which operate under a ward system (City of Stirling, City of Joondalup etc) and one of the benefits is that each Councillor can work on familiarising themselves with their own ward. It is just not possible to expect a Councillor to be familiar with all the parks and streets across the entire City, and so when someone from the other end of the City phones up about a local issue, I don’t believe they will receive as effective representation as they would if the Councillor was very familiar with the area. In addition, if there is a public meeting over a local issue, which Councillor will go? The ward system makes it clear that ward Councillors should attend.
3. Less accountability – When you are elected from 10,000 people you work very hard at being proactive in the area and acting on any resident concerns. This is because those 10,000 people make you accountable. About 20% of residents vote in local government elections, so you can get elected by receiving a majority of that 20% which in my example could be as few as 1,001 votes. Each vote is made all the more important as it represents approximately 1/1,000th of all votes. When there is no ward system each vote effectively drops in value and becomes 1/20,000th. The end result is that if a Councillor alienates a particular group of people, through ineffectiveness or laziness, it will have less impact on their re-election chances when there is no ward system.
4. Favours the incumbent – When you are a Councillor you get publicity from attending events, liaising with residents and from publications the local government produce; your name gets out there across the entire local government. Without a ward system it is much harder for an aspirant Councillor to get elected, because whilst s/he may be known in a particular area, it is unlikely they are known across the entire City. The ward system gives anyone with a genuine community interest a good chance of being voted in as a Councillor. When you have no ward system they have little chance; unless of course they are career politicians aligned to a major political party.
5. Less voice – This is the greatest concern to me, and is the reason for the picture at the top of this article. I believe that residents in a large local government are severely disempowered when there is no ward system. This is because they don’t know which Councillor they should contact. It is very clear to any Central Ward resident that I, or my two fellow Central ward Councillors, are their ‘go to people’. When there is no ward system and a resident needs to choose a name from a list of fourteen, where do they start? And bad luck if they happen to choose someone who is disinterested and/or lazy because the resident now has little chance of swaying anyone’s re-election chances.
At this particular time, there is a further reason why the ward system should remain. I believe it is unfair for the subsumed local government, which is typically much smaller in size, to not have a ward system. With no ward system in place, there can be no assurance that the smaller local government will have any local representation. For instance, the City of Bayswater currently have 69,493 residents and the Town of Bassendean have 15,923. Bayswater residents are familiar with Bayswater Councillors and Bassendean residents familiar with Bassendean Councillors, and when it comes time to vote there is a chance that the residents of Bayswater will determine who all the elected members are. I fail to see how this is a good result for the wider community. This is compounded by the peculiar recommendation of the LGAB that “Offices of councillor … with terms expiring in the 2017 will see out their terms.” Local governments have staggered elections every two years and each Councillor is granted a four year term. When I ran for election three years ago I was informed that my term could be cut short due to local government reform. The LGAB are recommending existing Councillor terms for the subsuming local governments are allowed to run the full term. For the proposed City of Bayswater, this means that six of the proposed 14 Councillor positions are already taken by City of Bayswater Councillors and it will therefore be even harder for the additional areas to have representation by virtue of there being less places available.
On the whole I believe the LGAB did a very good job with their recommendations, as too did Minister Tony Simpson who was placed in an invidious position when charged with the task of overseeing local government reform. However the ward system should have remained, and the comments which the LGAB use throughout their report to justify the abolition of the ward system are simply not correct; “It is the Board’s view that equitable representation and engendering a whole of council approach is enhanced by a district ward structure“. Equitable representation is not achieved through the abolishment of the ward system and this is probably why every local government listed in the table above requested that the ward system remain.
I urge the Premier and the Minister of Local Government to allow the ward system to be in place and, because of the significant changes, open all positions up and have a full election for all Councillor positions.
Please be aware that these views are my own and have not been endorsed by the City of Bayswater.