Labor says it will unwind laws introduced by the Coalition a decade ago that gave businesses in the City of Sydney two votes in what was a failed attempt to oust Lord Mayor Clover Moore.
Likening it to the dictatorship North Korea, Local Government Minister Ron Hoenig said the 2014 changes had made the City of Sydney “probably one of the most undemocratic systems of any election system in Australia”.
The changes, made by then premier Mike Baird, automatically enrolled businesses to vote and gave them the power to select two electors. This applied to any corporation that was the sole owner, rate-paying lessee or occupier of any rateable land.
The rules applied only to the City of Sydney, on the basis the local government area was home to a high number of business and property owners who contributed to but did not live in the LGA.
But critics saw it as a blatant attempt by the Coalition to remove a long-time political enemy in Moore, who unseated Liberal Michael Yabsley in the state seat of Bligh – now Sydney – in 1988.
Moore’s ally Alex Greenwich, the state MP for Sydney, wrote to Hoenig this month asking for the “unfair” laws to be urgently repealed. “The clear aim of changing City of Sydney elections was to seize control of Town Hall by increasing the conservative vote,” he wrote.
Hoenig said he would consult stakeholders about exactly what to do, but his view was the voting changes passed in 2014 should simply be repealed.
He noted even under the amended system, “something of which North Korea would be proud”, Moore won more than 57 per cent of first preferences in 2016 and was easily re-elected for an historic fifth term in 2021.
Hoenig said the City of Sydney should have the same rules as all other NSW councils, despite the prevalence of non-resident business and property owners in Sydney’s CBD.
“[In 2014] the Coalition asserted no taxation without representation,” he said. “If that were the policy enshrined in democratic voting systems, Clive Palmer would have more of a vote than my residents in Waterloo. That is not the way democracy operates in this state.”
In other NSW local government areas, owners of rateable land, or the occupiers or lessees of rateable land, may still vote once in council elections. In other LGAs it is voluntary, and most businesses do not bother.
Moore welcomed Hoenig’s plan to repeal the law, saying it was “an undemocratic gerrymander when passed in 2014, and it remains undemocratic today”.
“There is nowhere else in Australia where a business is allowed two votes for a council election,” she said.
The 2014 laws were the Coalition’s second bid to oust Moore from the lord mayor position. In 2012 then premier Barry O’Farrell introduced laws, dubbed the “Get Clover” bill, which meant MPs were forced to choose between local or state politics. The laws backfired when Greenwich, her ally, was elected as her successor in a by-election.
Opposition Leader Mark Speakman said on Wednesday he believed the laws had been “fair”, but did not say whether he would seek to block their repeal.
Liberal City of Sydney councillor Shauna Jarrett said Labor was “disenfranchising” a large part of the City of Sydney, and rather than repealing the laws the state government should consider expanding them to all other councils.
Moore, 77, has not yet said whether she will run for sixth term at the September 2024 election. She has been lord mayor since 2004.
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