I support the existence of wards in the City of Sydney.
The arguments against usually state that wards promote parochialism and not having a whole-of-Council-area view, while the arguments in favour usually include that having local councillors is more likely to lead to there being at least one councillor with detailed knowledge about each area of the local government.
A key point in these arguments, which is often missed, relates to the accountability of councilllors to voters. Wards promote more directly accountable Councillors, while an undivided Council (i.e. without wards) promotes teams/parties and each Councillor’s election being dependent on their team’s total vote and their position on their team’s ticket (unless they are independents).
For example, several serving Councillors for the City of Sydney are candidates in the upcoming elections (I am a candidate but not a serving Councillor), all of whom are running as members of teams. These Councillors will be re-elected if their team receives sufficient numbers of votes, unless they individually receive a very large number of personal votes (which is unlikely as most voters vote above-the-line as they do in NSW Legislative Council elections).
This effectively incentivises Councillors to be responsive to their teams/parties more than they would be if there were wards. Councillors are effectively responsible to voters through their team, and there are incentives on Councillors to act as a team and not individually. This produces an un-needed mediated responsibility into local government.
If there were wards each returning 3 or 4 councillors, these ward councillors would be directly responsible to their voters rather than their election being dependent on an overall team vote across the whole local government. It is much easier for voters to re-elect or defeat particular ward Councillors than Councillors elected across an undivided local government.
A related point to this is that local Councillors are more likely to lead to at least one Councillor having a detailed knowledge of each area in the City, if only because the incentives would tend to lead to this. The existing incentives for Councillors having detailed knowledge of some area are much weaker. By being reposnsible to voters across the whole City of Sydney, individual Councillors are effectively responsible to no particular voters.
Before being involved in community groups, I essentially agreed with the undivided City arguments. But since being involved I think that it is very important that for each area of the City, there should be a Councillor with detailed knowledge of the area. It is difficult for all part-time Councillors to have a detailed knowledge of the whole City, and wards are more likely to lead to Councillors knowing about each part of the City. In addition, wards would lead to independent candidates being much more likely to be elected to Council as they currently need a lot of money to advertise their message across the whole city, and it is much easier to gain 20-25% of the vote in one-third (one ward) of the City rather than 10% of the vote across the entire City of Sydney.
There is an argument that electing 3 or 4 Councillors per ward leads to very similar election outcomes election after election, as each major party can be often guaranteed 25% (say) of the vote and that the teams/parties can almost be guaranteed a certain number of Councillors. Experience shows that while this has an element of truth, the control of Councils can and does often change and it is sensitive to electoral support (e.g. the recent history of Woollahra, Randwick and South Sydney Councils).
The arguments against wards are weak and effectively support Councillors being more responsive to their party/team than if there were wards. I support Councillors being as responsive to voters as possible and having detailed local knowledge, and am unpersuaded that local Councillors would not be able to have a City of Sydney-wide view of issues. I support wards in the City of Sydney for these reasons.
Written and authorised by Sacha Blumen, 72 Elizabeth Bay Rd, Elizabeth Bay NSW 2011