By Edmund Kirkwood
Moves to enfranchise businesses in the next City of Sydney election are putting some councillors and the Lord Mayor on a collision course.
A joint Parliamentary inquiry earlier this year recommended the introduction of compulsory business voting, with the City of Melbourne elections as the blueprint.
The Shooters and Fishers Party announced last week it will introduce legislation in the New South Wales Parliament to amend the City of Sydney Act to make business voting compulsory in council elections, eliminating the need for businesses to re-enroll to vote every four years.
Some councillors support the proposed change, including Independent City councillor and business owner Angela Vithoulkas.
However, Cr Linda Scott said Sydney’s future is at risk of becoming “a banana republic” if the Shooters and Fishers’ mooted changes for business voting are introduced.
Cr Vithoulkas said the existing system does not allow for an accurate representation of the community.
“Only 1700 business out of roughly 40,000 voted in the last election,” she said.
“They are contributing financially to the city, but have no representation.
“How can we say we represent the community when 40% of them aren’t involved in the voting process?”
Liberal Cr Christine Forster is in favour of a permanent business roll and said the present system is “unfair”.
“Business owners contribute nearly 80% of rate revenue to the City of Sydney – they are entitled to have fair representation,” Cr Forster said.
“A permanent business roll would re-enfranchise those businesses who have been steadily disenfranchised over the last 10 years.”
However, Lord Mayor Clover Moore said permanent business rolls create electoral inaccuracies and come with risks.
“In 1995 the Crown Solicitor was so concerned about serious inaccuracies, fraud and corruption in the existing permanent roll of businesses eligible to vote he warned that it would be ‘unsafe to hold an election for the City of Sydney’,” Ms Moore said,
“Because of these serious risks, businesses need to re-enroll every four years to reduce fraud and corruption and improve democracy.”
If passed, the legislation would see the introduction of more than 50,000 eligible business votes being cast, about half the total number of residents enrolled to vote.
The City’s Floor Space and Employment Survey 2012 identified more than 21,000 businesses in the council. At the last election in 2012, 1702 businesses voted.
Cr Scott said if the Shooters and Fishers Party changes were implemented, more than 19,000 businesses would be enrolled to vote without their knowledge or permission, opening the risk of thousands of businesses being fined for not participating in 2016 elections.
Cr Scott said the existing system is “open and transparent”, conducted by the independent NSW Electoral Commission, without interference from politicians or political parties.
“If the system is changed to enroll businesses without their knowledge or consent, I am concerned we will see a return to 1995 – a time when the Crown Solicitor warned it would be unsafe to hold a City of Sydney election given concerns about serious inaccuracies in the business electoral rolls.”
Some City Hall watchers are speculating on how a potential sea-change in voting power could affect Ms Moore’s chances of re-election in 2016.
“Traditionally Clover Moore has not been interested in the business vote,” Cr Forster said.
“She has promoted parts of the electorate – particularly the villages – and hasn’t sought to engage the businesses.
“I would expect that many of those businesses wouldn’t vote for Clover Moore.”
Cr Vithoulkas said some councillors may not get re-elected.
“I don’t think that small business has been a focus or a priority under Clover Moore. I think it will make the next election closer.”
Both City councillors said they were confident business vote legislation would be on the statute book before the next City of Sydney election, although the proposed bill has not yet been drafted.
“The findings of the joint Parliamentary inquiry were in favour of adopting a Melbourne-based model of compulsory business voting and I would expect the State Government would support that,” Cr Forster said.
“The Shooters and Fishers Party have proposed a similar model and that would get it through the Upper House.”
Cr Vithoulkas asked why politicians are “scared” of all voters having a voice.
“It would be difficult for both houses not to support. Then our Governments would have to stand up and say why they are anti-democracy, and I hope this question gets asked if this legislation fails.
“Any politician who would not support everybody who is eligible of having the right to vote is being anti-democratic.”