BY ALEX EUGENE AND ANITA SENARATNA
City of Sydney residents could have yet another plebiscite on their hands in the upcoming 2020 local election, if local advocates get their way. This time it would be to decide if the council should consist of geographical wards with more councillors, instead of being one large, united area as it is now.
Most councils in Australia are broken up into geographical wards, with local councillors from each area elected to make up the larger team. But in 2004, the Labor Government abolished that system in City of Sydney. Today, all councillors are equally responsible for the entire council area, instead of separately representing their own communities.
Tony Ericksen, a political campaign consultant, says this means residents are not adequately represented because councillors are stretched across such a large geographical area instead of focusing on their local communities. He is advocating for wards to be re-introduced into the City of Sydney in the next election, by way of a voter referendum at the time of polling.
“When you have wards you can call a councillor who has the best knowledge,” he said.
Geoff Rundle from Residents First Woollahra agreed wards were a positive element, saying, “When you’re elected, you’re a councillor for the whole council area. But more importantly, you are identified as somebody who represents the locality in which you’ve been elected to. So in that respect it’s a good contact point for somebody who’s got a concern.”
Mr. Rundle, who served as a Councillor for nine years in the Cooper and Double Bay wards of Woollahra, and was elected Mayor in 2004 and 2007, said being a councillor to a specific ward had allowed him to learn a great deal more about those areas.
Sandra Blackmore, a resident of Waterloo, says the introduction of wards to the City of Sydney could “transform the living experience” of locals in the area.
One possible transformation involves the local tennis courts in her area, which are always locked unless booked in advance.
Ms. Blackmore said she had seen aboriginal children playing tennis on the road near her house just blocks away from the courts. She said she would take such a matter to a local ward councillor, if she had one, to ask that the tennis courts be unlocked so that local children could use them freely.
“There would be someone to talk to. The councillors of this area might even have a local meeting,” she said, adding that she had never seen any of the current councillors in Waterloo.
“They wouldn’t solve [all the political problems], but they would open up a dialogue which would lead to an understanding of the problems that exist.”
“Then the local ward councillor’s tenure in council would be less secure if they weren’t doing their job,” she added.
Ms. Blackmore said without locally elected councillors in wards, there ended up being more “buck passing” and less accountability.
Mr. Ericksen, who assisted Bayside Council to establish itself after the former City of Botany Bay and Rockdale City councils were merged in 2016, has seen the effects of shrinking local government representation.
He suggests that the 10 City of Sydney villages could be split up into five wards with three councillors each. This would give the council 15 members instead of the current 10.
“It gives a voice to people who want to put their hand up to say ‘I want to be a councillor right now’ — the Sydney council prevents that,” said Mr. Erikson, who estimates that an independent could run for a ward seat for as little as $5,000 –which would be impossible in the City of Sydney, because of the huge geographical size.
He pointed to Independent City of Sydney councillor Angela Vithoulkas as an example, who had to finance around 42 poll booths in the last election. But for a single ward, that number could have been as low as eight.
Mr. Eriksen said a ward system that made it more financially viable for independents to run “allows democracy to work.”
But Cr Vithoulkas, elected twice so far, doesn’t resent being an independent in a large system. She says the City of Sydney is unique and unlike suburban councils, with a different demographic and different needs.
“I don’t resent that it’s hard for me. It’s not simple and easy, and if it were, someone else would have done it already,” she said, adding that the demanding workload helped to attract the right people to the job.
Cr Vithoulkas said that for many people, contact with their local council was rare, but that “the City of Sydney resident is very vocal, very well educated, very connected and very in tune with what’s going on. They’re unlike any other demographic.”
Cr Linda Scott, however, the sole Labor member of the City of Sydney Council, disagrees.
“Independently-determined council wards would allow for better representation of residents, businesses and their needs. As a Labor Councillor, I have always supported the introduction of wards in the City of Sydney and have put words into action, moving to seek Council holds the referendum necessary to reintroduce wards.”
Cr Scott previously moved a motion to hold a referendum on wards during the 2016 election, but was blocked by the Liberal and Clover Moore Independent Councillors.
In fact, Geoff Rundle from Residents First Woollahra had given City of Sydney Council as an example of that very predicament.
“In City of Sydney you ring up a councillor but you don’t know if they know your area or not. They might know the whole of the area, but they may not know your specific area,” he told City Hub.
But the Lord Mayor would not be drawn on her personal view about the re-introduction of wards in the next election.
“City of Sydney residents and ratepayers rejected dividing the City of Sydney into wards at a referendum held in conjunction with the 2008 council elections. This result showed the community does not support a ward system,” a spokesperson for the Mayor said.
But Tony Ericksen says the result was very close, and not outrightly rejected. 42% voted in favour of implementing wards, while 58% were against.
He also pointed out that when Clover Moore was the local member for Bligh, of Hawkesbury City Council, she made a submission to City of Sydney saying that wards were necessary to represent the people. But after she was elected as the Lord Mayor, she backflipped and had not actively supported introducing wards since.
“She originally wanted five wards. When she got elected she changed her mind,” Mr. Ericksen said.
“It does favour a strong party to stay in power if you don’t have wards.”
Cr Vithoulkas said: “If the people want wards, and they think they are better represented by wards then I think that’s exactly what should happen. But we should look at still having a popularly elected Mayor.
“When the Mayor is internally elected [by councillors] it’s not for the right reason,” she said.