An end to conservative blocks in Town Council?

By ALEX NELSON

 

Voters going to the polls for the local government elections tomorrow will not notice any changes as they cast their votes; they will still be required to put a number in every square for each candidate on the voting slips.
The major change comes in the method of counting the votes, which will be counted and preferences distributed via a proportional voting system (Alice News Online, March 4).
The new system replaces the notorious exhaustive preferential counting method, long suspected as a form of “block voting” that facilitated the dominance of politically conservative and business oriented aldermen (now councillors) onto the Alice Springs Town Council. (For an explanation of the old system, see Alice News, March 27, 2008).
The exhaustive preferential system is not, however, the original method of casting and counting votes for the ASTC. As you make your choice for mayor and councillors on March 24, spare a thought for your compatriots in Queensland choosing their next state government, because they’re using an optional voting method which was also the system in use during the 1970s for the Alice town council.
This method permits voters to put numbers in squares only for the candidates they favour and can ignore the rest – in Queensland a voter may choose simply to vote for one candidate, regardless of how many are running in that electorate.
For the council elections of 1971, 1974 and 1977, voters were required to place numbers equivalent to the number of positions on the council, plus one more, for the election of the aldermen. The extra vote was required in the event an aldermanic candidate was elected as mayor (the vote for mayor is always determined first).
As there is always only one position for mayor, the counting of votes has always been a simple distribution of preferences until one candidate achieves an absolute majority (50 per cent plus one).
In 1971 that wasn’t necessary, as Jock Nelson (no relation) garnered 75 per cent of the votes; still the record to this day. He was formerly the Federal Labor member for the NT.
In 1974 there was no vote for mayor at all, as Brian Martin was elected unopposed – the only time that’s happened.
However, the situation was very different for electing the aldermen. In addition to optional preferential voting, the method of counting the votes was first-past-the-post, whereby those candidates with the highest tally of primary votes were elected to fill the positions on the council. There was no distribution of preferences.
First-past-the-post is the least democratic of vote-counting systems but its virtue lies in its simplicity. This was certainly an asset in 1971 as 30 candidates had nominated to run for council, still the highest on record.
In 1971 and 74 the ASTC had eight aldermen but in 1977 it was increased to 10. Consequently voters had to choose for 11 of the 17 candidates that were running, in the event that one was successful as mayor. However, this again proved unnecessary as George Smith was elected as mayor (he had not run for alderman).
So how did the optional preferential voting and first-past-the-post counting methods affect the composition of the early town councils? An impression may be gained from the first by-election of March 24, 1973, when candidate Dennis Haddon claimed there are “too many businessmen on the Council and there is a need to represent the workers”. He advertised: “This is Your … ALP Candidate in Saturday’s Council Election”, the first overtly party political campaign for a town council election (the CLP did not yet exist).
Haddon was correct in the sense that the first council was overwhelmingly politically conservative and business-oriented, characteristics that have dominated the ASTC to the present day.
There were some distinctive features of the ASTC in the 1970s. The first three mayors and many aldermen were of a politically high calibre, their names representing a roll call of history – Jock Nelson, Brian Martin, Paul Everingham, Len Kittle, Tony Greatorex, Ray Hanrahan, and Leslie Oldfield, are some that spring to mind.
Another feature was the short duration of the mayors in office.
The first council also included architect Andrew McPhee, who later designed the original Civic Centre, opened on March 14, 1980.
It was also in 1980 that voters went to the polls again but this time there were significant changes. This included full preferential voting, where voters had to put a number in every square on their ballot slips, and the results were determined by the distribution of preferences.
Another major change was the introduction of a four year term for the Alice town council, the first of any elected body in the NT.
George Smith was re-elected as mayor, the first incumbent to do so against competing candidates; and he went on to serve as mayor for six years in total, thereby setting the pattern of relative longevity in office for all successive mayors. (The current mayor, Damien Ryan, is seeking re-election for a second term).
The new voting and counting systems for council elections saw the continuation of the dominance of politically conservative aldermen on the Alice town council; however, there was a marked change in the political aspirations of many of them.
The 1970s was characterised by former political heavyweights, such as Jock Nelson and Tony Greatorex (formerly President of the NT Legislative Council), being elected as mayors. By contrast, the only council member to progress into Territory politics was Paul Everingham; and that was only after he moved to Darwin.
Everingham was elected as a member of the first NT Legislative Assembly on October 19, 1974 (he eventually became the first Chief Minister after self-government, too).
By contrast, Alice mayor Brian Martin hit the headlines when he publicly urged people to vote informal in protest against the lack of clear-cut powers of the new Assembly!
However, from 1980 the ASTC became the launch pad of many attempted political careers – some were successful, most were not.
As usual, it was the ALP that pioneered this trend, in the person of Alderman John Reeves, who was elected as the NT Federal member in the new Hawke government of 1983. Reeves defeated the CLP’s Grant Tambling, himself a former Darwin alderman and a member of the first NT Legislative Assembly.
Reeves tenure was short-lived; he in turn was defeated in 1984 by former ASTC alderman Paul Everingham! (Today John Reeves is a judge of the Federal Court of Australia.)
Another alderman from the 1980 town council to move into Territory politics was Ray Hanrahan; he was elected as the CLP’s Member for Flynn in 1983. The Flynn electorate straddled the southern part of urban Alice Springs and the rural area south of Heavitree Gap. At that time Heavitree Gap was the limit of the municipal boundary of the ASTC.
Hanrahan’s political career was meteoric (bright and brief) but he rose rapidly to become the first born and bred Territorian (and Centralian) deputy Chief Minister.
He was also the local member in 1988 when the NT Government extended the Alice town council’s boundary to incorporate the rural area south of Heavitree Gap. This was not a popular decision for most rural residents.
The council elections of 1984 firmly established the template of the exhaustive preferential voting system favouring the election of politically conservative aldermen yet there was a far greater diversity on the council than had previously existed.
Long-serving alderman John Marriot was the first incumbent to be defeated at the polls (and very few since then have suffered a similar fate). Mayor Leslie Oldfield was now the council’s longest-serving member, originally winning a by-election for alderman in 1978.
No other alderman from 1980 was on the council in 1984; the three previous aldermen returned to council had all won by-elections since that time.
Amongst the new faces on council was Asian immigrant Dr Richard Lim (who topped the primary count) and Bob Liddle, the first Aboriginal alderman in the NT. Three women were elected as aldermen, too – they were Lynne Peterkin (second behind Lim), Michelle Castagna, and Di Shanahan.
Yet this apparent diversity belied the fact that all but two of the aldermen were members of the CLP at the time; Castagna was independent, and Shanahan was a Labor stalwart.
Even the mayor, Leslie Oldfield, though not a party member, was initially still employed as an electorate officer for the CLP Member for Braitling, Roger Vale.
Di Shanahan’s election victory was telling; she was the last to just scrape into tenth position on the council. Yet when Shanahan ran as the Labor candidate for the Araluen by-election in April 1986, she attracted a 16 per cent swing to Labor (likely still to be a record in the NT) although still fell short of winning.
Alderman Shanahan also contested the Flynn by-election of September 1988 for Labor, following the spectacular departure of Ray Hanrahan from politics. This time she topped the primary count but lost on preferences.
Several other council members of the “Class of ’84” sought to launch their political careers from this base – they were Bob Liddle, Bob Kennedy, Leslie Oldfield, Lynne Peterkin, and Richard Lim. Only Lim succeeded when a decade later he became the Member for Greatorex (named in honour of former mayor Tony Greatorex).
The “block voting” effect of the exhaustive preferential system was again demonstrated in the council elections of May 1988. This time 24 candidates ran for alderman, the second highest on record.
The interest was sparked by the council boundary extension incorporating the rural area. The Rural Area Association organised a “ticket” of 10 candidates with the expectation that some may be elected onto the town council to represent rural residents’ interests (I was one of the candidates). Not one succeeded.
In part this result was due to a large number of informal votes. The “rural ticket” had distributed how-to-vote pamphlets listing the 10 rural-based candidates from one to 10 but leaving the remaining 14 squares blank for voters to make up their own minds.
Scrutineers at the count reported many informal votes had exactly followed the how-to-vote pamphlets, leaving 14 blank squares on their ballot slips.
These votes would have been valid in the old optional preference system of the 1970s but on this occasion it was a decade too late!
By contrast the council elections of 1992 attracted a record low 11 nominations for alderman. However, there were some retirements from the previous council so in fact four new aldermen were elected onto the council. The sole luckless candidate to miss out was Aboriginal identity Betty Pearce.
The council elections of 1996 attracted 21 nominations for alderman. One of these was Tangentyere Council president Geoff Shaw, who polled high in the initial primary count; yet in a striking demonstration of the “block voting” effect, Shaw’s position dropped with each successive distribution of preferences and ultimately he missed out.
Nevertheless, council election results from the 1990s have steadily led to more independent and progressive candidates (as opposed to conservative) making it onto the ASTC. Some notable examples are garden guru Geoff Miers, Geoff Harris, former manager of the Arid Lands Environment Centre, and Jane Clark, who was a Greens candidate.
The new proportional vote counting system should enhance the likelihood of candidates with more diverse backgrounds and political persuasions being elected onto council.
But this may not be so simple as the reduction of councillors from 10 to eight, which took effect in 2008, means that each candidate must achieve a higher proportion of votes to be successful. This seems to have been overlooked in the current election campaign.

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