BY LAWRENCE GIBBONS
The City of Sydney is about to break the law. Under new legislation enacted by the NSW State Parliament in February of last year, the City’s CEO is required to create a roll of all businesses that are eligible to vote in upcoming Council elections. Whether a business owns, leases or occupies their premises, as long as they pay more than $4,000 per year in rent, the City needs to ensure that they are contacted and enrolled.
The deadline for most businesses to register for the vote is July 14th. City elections will take place on September 10th and the City must present its final roll to the NSW Electoral Commission 60 days prior. According to City Councillor Christine Forster, “I am hearing many businesses have not been contacted.”
One such person is the former City of Sydney Deputy Lord Mayor Dixie Coulton, who leases space in a law office in the CBD. The high profile barrister was enrolled to vote as a non-resident in the last council elections and she stood for Lord Mayor in 2012. According to Ms Coulton, “I was on the roll last time and I was a candidate. I have been working in the same premises and I haven’t received notice. It is mandatory for the City to actively get people on the rolls and it seems that’s not what they’ve done.”
In the final weeks before the rolls close, many local businesses remain unaware that the deadline for enrolment is fast approaching. According to Ms Coulton, “most people are unaware that the deadline is in July. The whole process seems to be skewed so that businesses are not properly enrolled.”
Last August the City outlined a $12 million program to ensure that the City fulfilled its legal obligation to contact and enrol every eligible business in the local government area, including an extensive advertising campaign across a variety of media outlets.
As the deadline approaches, no large ads appear to have been booked in the local press, on outdoor bus shelters, on smart poll banners or in the various electronic media including radio, television or the Internet. The City’s homepage does not notify businesses of the impending deadline. Amidst a federal election campaign, the City’s campaign has been all but lost.
Also as part of the City’s $12 million campaign, in August Council undertook to engage an independent contractor to door knock all businesses in the local government area “to ensure the City directly contacts all occupiers in business-rated rateable land.” According to City of Sydney Councillor Angela Vithoulkas.” The City had originally intended to door knock businesses to let them know about the registration process and getting the roll established. It was then decided that buying databases was cheaper. And writing once to that “database” with a confusing packet of forms was seen as enough. After that one personally addressed letter all other forms of communication has been through advertising and letterbox drops of what could be considered spam. Just postcards that aren’t marked to anyone’s attention.”
According to Councillor Vithoulkas, “The current business enrolment process for the September election seems to be deliberately set up to fail. After spending millions of ratepayer’s dollars the City of Sydney’s information campaign is just not getting through, distorting any democratic response from small business”
Ms Coulton believes the City is acting improperly, “Rightly or wrongly government has given the business the vote and there is a directive for the City to do all it can to ensure every business is enrolled. The City has a duty to act and they haven’t done so. It seems to be in the current administration’s political interest not to comply with the Act. It is this administration that fought against the business vote and they are not doing all they could to promote it. A pro-business Lord Mayor would have done a lot more to ensure business was enrolled.”
In September of last year, Lord Mayor Clover Moore vociferously objected to the new business enrolment requirements stating, “To enforce the law that mandates all businesses vote, and many vote twice, the City will have to spend an initial $12 million plus ongoing costs. That is $12 million of public money to pay for a political gerrymander designed to reduce the value of our vote and influence over our local area. This flawed legislation, apart from its predatory political intent, will leave future elections vulnerable to legal challenge. So rather than governing, future city councils could be tied up in court.”
Ms Coulton believes that the enrolment forms being used by the City are confusing and might in fact lead to legal challenges, since they appear designed to disenfranchise business owners. In order to enrol, non-residents are required to fill in three different forms. In Melbourne, businesses are only asked to submit a single form. Form B asks tenants to provide details of their property’s rateable lot number. When the City of Sydney was asked why tenants were required to provide their rate details when the Act does not require the City to collect this sort of information, a City of Sydney spokesperson said, “If a tenant is unsure they can contact the City, who can provide these details.”
When a call was placed to Council’s information line, an operator indicated the City was unable to release rate details to tenants, advising non owners could leave this particular field blank. When asked why the City was requiring lot numbers and rate details on a form for tenants in the first place, the operator apologised for any confusion.
The City of Sydney has refused to provide an update as to how many businesses have been contacted and how many non-residents have submitted the various forms in order to enrol, stating that information will be released after the deadline passes. Councillor Vithoulkas is frustrated: “I have asked the City several times in writing about the number of businesses that have actually registered and to date I have been met with an unwillingness to provide the number. Surely that figure is available, relevant and an important measure of the campaign’s success to date. There is still time to rectify and amplify the message. We need to know that figure now not after the horse has bolted and the register has closed.”
How many businesses are ultimately enrolled could substantially effect who is elected as Lord Mayor in the upcoming Council elections. Councillor Forster believes that Clover Moore would not be standing for re-election unless she was fairly certain the number of businesses on the roll will be minimal. This seems to be the prevailing opinion amongst people on Clover Moore’s team. At a recent event, Councillor Jenny Green stated, “the impact of the business vote will be nowhere near as great as the Liberals anticipated.” Perhaps the councillors on the Clover Moore ticket are privy to information the City refuses to release to opponents or the general public.
Ultimately, it is unlikely that the roll will approach anything close to the 80,000 plus businesses that were estimated to be eligible to enrol last year. If the City of Sydney fails to produce a comprehensive roll of business voters and is seen to have obfuscated the process of ensuring that every business is enrolled, the repercussions could be destabilising for the next Lord Mayor, whoever she turns out to be.