When the Liberal Party came to power in New South Wales three-and-a-half years ago, it did so in devastating style. The biggest swing in modern Australian history reduced its traditional foe to a parliamentary rump in the lower house, while in the upper house the long-ascendant parties of the Left were swept to the margins.

However, it soon became apparent that the state’s conservative political establishment remained aggrieved that the influence of certain enemies remained intact. Chief among them was Clover Moore, who at the time was serving as both the independent member for Sydney, as she had been since 1991, and in the powerful capacity of Sydney’s Lord Mayor, a position she acquired in 2004. Moore and her inner-city support base embodied much that an ascendant Right despised, causing her to suffer regular assaults from Sydney’s noisy tabloid and talkback media over bike lanes, secular Christmas celebrations, and expenditure on public artworks.

The government’s eagerness to join the assault has taken the form of two electoral reform measures, ostensibly motivated by high principle but unmistakably crafted with an eye to clipping Moore’s wings. The first was a prohibition on state MPs serving in local government, introduced as one of the earliest initiatives of the newly elected O’Farrell government and dubbed by the media as the “get Clover” law.

Certainly it was not only Moore who was inconvenienced by this measure, with a further 27 members of Parliament being compelled to bow out of council politics when local government elections were held in September 2012. However, the exceptional nature of Moore’s circumstance was emphasised by the fact that she alone found reason to favour her local government gig over her seat in Parliament. So it was that the voters of central Sydney twice trudged back to the polls in late 2012, first to re-elect Moore to a third term as lord mayor with an absolute majority of the first preference vote, and then to deliver a similarly handsome victory to the Moore-endorsed independent Alex Greenwich at the byelection to replace her as member for Sydney.

Undeterred by the clarity of these electoral signals, the Baird government opened a new front against Moore last week by declaring its support for a bill that would make life much harder for her should she run again for lord mayor in 2016. The bill is the initiative of Robert Borsak of the Shooters and Fishers Party, and in its second reading speech Borsak commended Alan Jones and The Daily Telegraph as the “driving force” behind its proposals (if it isn’t immediately apparent why the administration of central Sydney should be of particular concern for Shooters and Fishers, opponents of the bill are keen to point to Moore’s advocacy of gun control during her time as a parliamentarian).

“Stacking the deck in favour of businesses — while depriving them of their right to abstain from an election they might not care about — makes it very hard to believe the bill’s motivations are anything other than crudely political.”

The aim of the bill is to radically tilt the electoral balance from residents to businesses by granting a second vote to the latter and compelling them to exercise them both through a combination of automatic enrolment and compulsory voting.

Its sponsors have not been so brazen as to propose measures for which some manner of a plausible case cannot be made, at least when considered in isolation. Certainly there is room for philosophical debate as to how the famous principle of “no taxation without representation” should apply where most of the rates are paid by people who live elsewhere, as is generally the case in big city municipalities.

At one end of the spectrum is Queensland, which allows no provision for non-residents to vote in council elections. This doesn’t present much of a problem in the unusual case of the City of Brisbane, which covers nearly half of Brisbane’s entire metropolitan area. It’s quite a different matter in the compact City of Sydney, where nearly 80% of rates revenue is derived from city businesses. In this the bill’s proponents have a useful precedent in the City of Melbourne, where a similar regime has long been in place.

Clover Moore’s response that businesses “already have greater rights to vote in the City of Sydney than anywhere else in New South Wales” is true enough as far as it goes, but the fact is that those rights aren’t being exercised. Of the roughly 70,000 votes cast at the 2012 lord mayoral election, only 1700 were from non-residential voters, which is plainly influenced by the laborious requirement that such voters re-enrol for every quadrennial council election. That fact makes life difficult for progressive opponents of the bill, who might normally argue that compulsory voting and automatic enrolment are essential for a democratic mandate. The point has been conceded by Moore’s parliamentary ally Alex Greenwich, who is working on an alternative bill to institute a permanent electoral roll for non-residential voters.

Things get quite a bit murkier with the granting of a second vote to businesses. The arbitrariness of this measure is emphasised by the automatic enrolment provision for corporations that fail to nominate their designated two voters in the prescribed four-week period. The obligation to vote will then be conferred upon “the first two company secretaries or directors of the corporation, taken alphabetically”.

Stacking the deck in favour of businesses — while depriving them of their right to abstain from an election they might not care about — makes it very hard to believe the bill’s motivations are anything other than crudely political. So far as issues of governance are concerned, one might have thought a government with the recent track record of the O’Farrell-Baird administration would have found other fish to fry.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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