09/11/2004 - 21:00

Special Report - Seeking a representative poll

09/11/2004 - 21:00


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The City of Perth might oversee the heart of corporate Western Australia, but business is under-represented on its governing council. Mark Pownall reports that many believe the State Government should recognise the unique needs of our CBD.



The City of Perth might oversee the heart of corporate Western Australia, but business is under-represented on its governing council. Mark Pownall reports that many believe the State Government should recognise the unique needs of our CBD.

Western Australia’s local government elections may seem an eternity away but already the preparation is under way for the races to be held in May.

Nowhere in the State is that contest more publicly fought than in the City of Perth, and it is hard to imagine a place where the result is less democratic – all because of rules that fail to take account of how a capital city really works.

Just 4,373 voters participated in the 2003 election of four councillors – Rob Butler, Janet Davidson, Lisa Scaffidi and Max Kay – and the Lord Mayor (Peter Nattrass) for four-year terms. The positions of the other four councillors – Bert Tudori, Judy McEvoy, Vincent Tan and Michael Sutherland – positions come up for election in May 2005.

Already, it is suggested, any of those four councillors seeking re-election in 2005 and their potential rivals will be poring over a list of 1,300 businesses who occupy space in the City of Perth, looking for potential votes.

It’s powerful stuff – a “gold mine”, as one elected member called it – because these 1,300 names have been purged automatically from the city’s electoral role, about two years after they enrolled to vote.

In this heady climate of a recent Federal campaign and imminent State election we are all being reminded just how important our vote is.

But it’s hard to imagine anywhere where one ordinary vote counts as much as the City of Perth.

Those 1,300 names not only represent 15 per cent of 8,593 voters registered to vote at the last election.

Perhaps more disturbingly, those 1,300 represent 27 per cent of the 4,705 owners and occupiers who were registered to vote at the last election. With residential inhabitants of the City of Perth automatically enrolled through the State electoral roll, where registration is compulsory, the battle to keep business fairly represented on council is difficult because they must actively take steps to first enrol and then stay on the roll. Residents registered number 3,888, or 45 per cent of the city’s roll, and 1,827 actually voted, representing 42 per cent of the total vote.

With such low numbers it is easy to see how candidates trawling through those 1,300 names and encouraging those they know to re-enrol can have a significant impact on their chances of winning the votes needed for council.

Property Council executive director Joe Lenzo is one who believes the system is flawed and works against the interests of those who really make up the city.

“One of the tragedies is the people who pay the majority of the rates, about 90 per cent, actually have a small say in the voting,” Mr Lenzo said.

“It is not just because they [businesses] are apathetic, it’s because of the way the system operates.”

The Property Council is critical not only of the rules that require non-residential voters to be removed from the roll roughly every two years, but also the complexity of the registration process for tenants, which is unsympathetic to small errors.

Mr Lenzo said he would like to see the State Government change the rules for Perth.

He believes better business representation on the roll might provide better depth at council level.

“What would happen is you might be able to get some people on the council who are experts in the dynamics of the commercial property sector in the capital city,” Mr Lenzo said. “We have a pretty good relationship with the council but, in general, what we believe is there is a lack of depth there.

“When a mammoth project like a new office tower comes before council there is almost a feeling that it is overwhelming. There is a tendency to err on the conservative.

“Decisions worth hundreds of thousands of dollars are made without the expertise at council level.”

The small numbers required to get on council doesn’t mean the task is simple, however.

Those who are organised and connected expend considerable effort to garner votes. It is like a mini-version of the US presidential elections, where half the battle is getting ‘your’ people to actually register to vote. In some ways that may be seen as democracy in action, but when the voter turnout is low, it is not hard to see how it suits the well-organised candidates with little more than a pocket of support. Hence, residential voters are an attractive group targeted by the most efficient lobbyists because they are already registered; in other words, half the battle is won.

Perhaps, more disturbingly, the opportunity for voters who favour a bloc of councillors is provided by the city’s electoral process.

Not that this necessarily happens, however. Unlike most big councils, Perth’s voters are not split into wards where they vote for an individual representative.

Rather, those participating cast votes for all council positions up for election.

In other words, one City of Perth vote goes further again than anyone else’s in any major electorate in the State. Just 4,373 participated in the 2003 election, voting for nine representatives ultimately overseeing total assets of $338 million and annual revenue of $84 million, the 4th highest government budget in WA behind the State Government and the cities of Stirling and Wanneroo.

Last election, Rob Butler needed just 1,957 votes to take a seat on council while the highest polling councillor, Lisa Scaffidi, won the support of 2,615 voters. Peter Natrass required just 1,809 votes to be comfortably returned as mayor.

To put that in context, to win the presidency of the WA Cricket Association Dennis Lillee won more votes (2,986) than anyone who contested the most recent Perth council elections.

Mr Butler denies this relatively tiny pool of voters necessarily means poor representation.

For instance, he points out the business credentials of the four candidates who became councillors last year, including his own 30-year background in the resources sector, an industry heavily represented in the Perth business community.

Mr Butler also points out he was previously on Subiaco Council during the period when that city changed from a sleepy village to a busy commercial and retail hub, yet remained a popular residential area.

He strongly believes there is drive within the council to take Perth’s central city to the “next level”.

“A lot of people don’t know what is happening in the city at the moment, and what is happening in the next 10 years, which will take Perth to a true capital city,” Mr Butler said.

“We need the State Government to get behind that.”

But he acknowledges that the city is not seen as a voice of business.

Mr Butler is one of many who argue that a capital city charter that recognises the City of Perth officially as a capital city is needed. That way the city’s position would be officially recognised at the State’s capital, possibly through legislation, and its voting structure could be altered to be more representative of its unique electorate.

“Until the City of Perth is recognised by the State Government as a true capital city and a capital city charter is signed, I don’t think it will ever be seen that way,” Mr Butler said.

He also thinks the voter registration has improved in recent years and the factional issues in council have waned. In addition, he stresses it is tough work and costly to find the votes needed, however small, to win a council seat.

While that is positive news from a business point of view, it does not rule out the possibility that this could all be reversed at a future election, if the balance at council was changed.

Pro Property managing director Brett Wilkins, who failed to win a seat on council when he ran in 2000, agrees that it is very tough for a business candidate to win even though voter numbers are small.

But Mr Wilkins believes the failure of a candidate with his credentials – a Perth city resident, a former head of property group Hawaiian Investments and a past president of the Property Council – reflects the poor representation of business on council.

Instead, he highlights people with very tenuous links to the city who have won seats on council and blames the system, which simply magnifies business apathy by making enrolment difficult.

“We tried to get it like Melbourne, where the business community is automatically enrolled,” Mr Wilkins told WA Business News.

Ironically, he said the break up of Perth City Council several years ago was meant to carve away the commercial rate paying hub from the influence of the residential wards that surrounded it. Instead, an even smaller group of inner-city dwellers now wields influence over the commercial sector.

“Residents still control the issues,” Mr Wilkins said.

Councillor Lisa Scaffidi agrees, suggesting that only a few councillors have real business interests, far from representative given the nature of the electorate.

Ms Scaffidi said there were issues with making sure businesses that registered were legitimate, but more definitely needed to be done to overcome business apathy.

She said it shouldn’t be the job of candidates to get rate payers on the roll.

“We are making huge decisions in terms of the city’s future development, which will have an impact on the economy of the State, you would think that business would pay more attention,” Ms Scaffidi said.

Even a cursory examination of last year’s results shows it is possible for just a handful of voters to influence the outcome of Perth’s municipal election and ultimately the make-up of this body. If 500 voters had chosen a different course, for instance, they would have seriously changed the composition of the council.

Make that hypothetical number 1,000 and they could have determined the five positions up for re-election last year – creating an invincible majority for four years, including the mayoral position.

This issue is compounded when compared with the real issue of democracy in our capital city – that the registered voters are unrepresentative of the electorate as a whole.

Dr Nattrass, who acknowledges this is a big issue, estimates only 10 per cent of the potential owner or occupier voters in the City of Perth are registered.

That means at least 35,000 potential voters are not registered, or about four times the number currently on the electoral roll.

Almost all of those potential voters are businesses that occupy space in the CBD and immediate surrounds. It is these companies that pay the bulk of the rates that sustain the city, yet they play almost no part in how those vast sums are used or what direction Perth’s capital is taking.

Instead, a marginal group of, in many cases, relative newcomers – inner-city dwellers – play a proportionately exaggerated role in electing the councillors who names are, more often than not, household names across metropolitan Perth.

Dr Nattrass acknowledges the result is that the “voice is unrepresentative”.

“The composition of the electoral roll depends on the keenness of candidates to get people to put their names down,” he said.

“It distorts things; it is not in the best interests of the city.”

Dr Nattrass said the city had a two-fold strategy to resolve this situation.

Firstly, it was becoming increasingly sophisticated in tracking down non-residents who could potentially vote in a bid to increase the number of registered voters and broaden the representation of business on the roll.

This process started in earnest about four years ago but Dr Nattrass is confident the recent appointment of former WA Electoral Commission commissioner Ken Evans as the City of Perth electoral coordinator will improve voter registrations for the next election.

Dr Evans is heading a city effort to promote registration to about 900 property owners who are thought to be residents of WA but live outside the City of Perth.

Secondly, the city has been making representations to the State Government to change the system to make Perth’s elections more representative.

Dr Nattrass said this has led to changes such as postal voting, which provided convenience for the vast majority of non-residents to participate. Another change has been the right of non-resident property owners to remain on the roll rather than being purged after two years as business occupiers still are.

These changes have improved registration and participation, but this falls short of what Dr Nattrass argues should be a capital city charter, special rules for City of Perth’s elections that recognise not only that the composition of Perth’s electorate is vastly different from Mandurah or Stirling but also that it is the State’s capital.

“The capital city has a role to play, with one of two exceptions, that is far broader than what we represent,” Dr Nattrass said.

This includes roles in tourism, hosting visiting dignitaries and consulates, and providing entertainment and retail life to ensure vibrancy remained in the heart of the metropolis.

“Pavarotti is coming here, what sort of role should we play in assessing that for the sake of the people at large,” Dr Nattrass said.


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