The question of whether businesses should have a say in local government elections in Sydney has been the subject of parliamentary and community debate for several decades.
The debate began in 1995 when the Carr Government passed a series of “franchise amendments” to the City of Sydney Act 1988, the original legislation that sets out voting procedures for the City.
The reforms introduced the inclusion of a non-residential electoral roll for the City of Sydney. Under these reforms, business owners were allowed to vote in local elections as long as they were Australian citizens and, importantly, their actual place of residence was within New South Wales. Another criterion was that the business owner paid at least $5000 per year in council rates.
The Act was amended again three years later, with the passing of the Local Government Legislation Amendment (Elections) Act 1998. This Act specifically legislated against the notion of allowing any business two votes in local elections. Where the previous legislation had allowed large firms to nominate two electors, the Amendment ensured businesses of all sizes were allowed only one vote each.
An inquiry into election procedures in the City of Sydney led by Commissioner William Fisher AO QC recommended that non-residential voting should not be compulsory. In 2003, the City of Sydney Amendment (Electoral Rolls) Act 2003 was introduced to reflect this. This Amendment clarified that any eligible non-resident wishing to vote in City of Sydney Council elections had to volunteer to do so.
The Amendment also clarified that the non-residential electoral roll would lapse after every local council election.
These procedures were then addressed in 2013 with the creation of The Local Government Taskforce, which was established by then local government minister Don Page, to review non-residential voting procedure.
A Joint Standing Committee was then established to investigate the use of the business franchise in the 2012 City of Sydney elections. The Committee was chaired by Government Whip and Member for Kiama Gareth Ward. This committee recommended compulsory business voting and the notion of two votes for businesses, as per the Melbourne model.
“The Committee recommends that the Government introduce the model used by the City of Melbourne for the City of Sydney in all its respects including the deeming provisions and the compulsory voting aspect for electors on the non-residential roll.”
Business voting procedures have had a long and fraught history in many other western nations.
Compulsory business voting has been eliminated in Canada and New Zealand following parliamentary inquiries into local government elections.
The vote was discontinued in Canada in 1993 because of “a desire to apply the one person, one vote principle” and because “the effectiveness of the vote on addressing business concerns was arguably minimal”.
The provision for land owners to vote in New Zealand local elections was discontinued in 1889.
One of the only big cities to retain a strong franchise for businesses is the City of London. Business voting in the City of London has proved particularly controversial. Under the London legislation, businesses are allocated votes based on how much they pay in rates: the smallest contributors get two votes, with the largest businesses allocated seventy-nine votes.
This has come under fire increasingly in recent years, with UK journalist and author George Monbiot calling it “plutocracy, pure and simple”.
Business voting was repealed in all of the United Kingdom, excluding the City of London, in 1969.