Why there should be wards in the City of Sydney Council

Last year I argued in favour of having wards in the City of Sydney during a referendum to introduce them held in conjunction with the September 2008 City elections.* (I have to declare that I was a Labor candidate for Council – number six on the ticket of ten candidates, and that our team supported a Yes vote in the referendum.) I argued that not having wards meant that Councillors were responsible to voters through their teams, and that having “team” votes meant that it was much more difficult for voters to vote for or against particular Councillors.

I now support having wards more strongly than I did at the election. I used to be against having wards but my view changed since being involved in community groups.

While I used to think that having wards promoted parochialism, this relatively minor point is much weaker than the negatives associated with not having wards. The fact that all nine Councillors represent the entire City of Sydney means that that no particular Councillor (or group of Councillors) is directly responsible to the voters in any particular area of the City. There is no obligation for the issues in any area to be taken up by any Councillor.

Councillors’ political responsibility is lessened by not having wards. Not having wards also results in a more “corporatist” Council in which there is greater focus on the Lord Mayor. This is precisely what has happened since 2004 in the City of Sydney after it was amalgamated with the City of South Sydney and parts of Leichhardt Municipal Council.

One of the arguments used to support a “No” vote in the wards referendum was that the City of Sydney effectively has wards in that it has periodic community meetings focussing on different parts of the City that allow residents to directly talk to Council staff. Apart from the difficulty in arguing against wards while touting the usefulness of having similar structures, this argument has problems. Having ward-based Councillors means that there are Councillors who can advocate on behalf of local communities, while periodic community meetings simply permits a reactive approach of Council staff reacting to resident concerns. Having periodic community meetings is a poor substitute for wards – they should supplement wards.

Interestingly, the current Lord Mayor, Clover Moore MP started in politics by being elected to South Sydney Council in 1980 as a local ward Councillor (from memory a three-Councillor ward). It’s reasonable to consider that she may not have been elected to the South Sydney Council if that Council was undivided, and leads to questions about why she does not support wards now (despite being elected in 2004 on a platform of supporting them). Having wards assisted locals putting forward their concerns in South Sydney Council in the early 1980s, and it would also allow the same for the City of Sydney in 2009.

The only question is how many Councillors should there be on Council, and how many Councillors should represent each ward? It’s usual in NSW for wards to each return a couple of Councillors to allow for a range of political views to be represented in each area. The alternative of having one Councillor per ward would improve political responsibility but probably decrease the range of views represented on Council. Given the popularity of having a couple of Councillors elected for each ward, it’s plausible to have 3 Councillors per ward, and to have 4 or 5 wards in the City. The latter would require a change to the law to allow 16 Councillors on Council – 4 wards may be more achievable under the current law.

* The referendum to introduce three wards each returning three Councillors did not succeed (the Lord Mayor would have continued to be directly elected by all voters). The Lord Mayor campaigned against the referendum, and the “No” votes were more strongly correlated with the Lord Mayor’s vote than with votes for other candidates.

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