Mock council ballot paper.
Mock council ballot paper. Rae Wilson

'Ludicrous' changes to the way we vote

MACKAY mayor Greg Williamson has labelled as ludicrous reforms that could result in Mackay voters filling out every square on Senate-style ballot papers almost half a metre long at the next council election.

At past elections, voters could number their preferred candidates from one to 10 for the 10 available councillor positions.

But the Palaszczuk Government's proposed reforms could force voters in council areas without ward divisions, like Mackay, to number every candidate on the ballot paper in preference order.

This area had 37 council candidates in 2016 and 48 in 2008.

The statewide reforms could also enable councillors to challenge for mayor without giving up their spot, restrict mayoral candidates to spending caps of up to $100,000 and restrict council business during longer caretaker modes.

The government has argued the proposed changes are in line with the Crime and Corruption Commission's Operation Belcarra report.

But the Local Government Association of Queensland says some of the recommendations go beyond what was called for.

The organisation has warned the combination of compulsory preferential voting and proportional representation would be an "unmitigated disaster".

LGAQ chief Greg Hallam said the proposed reforms were monumental changes that defied logic.

He said the changes would increase the chance of donkey votes and invalid votes, with people at the top of the ballot paper likely to have a much better chance of winning.

"People will have to number every square. If some poor person puts two 23s instead of 24, it's invalid," Mr Hallam said.

"There will be mass confusion.

"We've operated this model since 1994 and there's no good reason to change it.

"We're opposed to compulsory preferential voting, proportional representation and we don't support the caps put forward on spending.

"We also don't support the mayor's powers to direct staff being removed."


Mock council ballot paper.
Mock council ballot paper. Rae Wilson

Councillor Williamson said some voters had struggled to pick 10 correctly last election.

"Can you imagine having to number one to 37 in a specific order. It's just a ludicrous situation, not thought through, not consulted," he said.

"The donkey vote is going to go through the roof and and the counting could take two months.

"This seems to be at the whim of some members of the current government for whatever reason, we don't know.

"There's been no consultation over most of this."


Mackay Regional Council mayor Greg Williamson talks about the weather outlook for the Mackay region.
Mackay Regional Council mayor Greg Williamson. Caitlan Charles

Cr Williamson said he was equally concerned about the proposal to restrict council operations to caretaker mode from the date nominations closed to when the poll was declared.

"In our case, in a big undivided council, it could now take two months to count the votes," he said.

"The CEO and council officers can't deal with any tenders over $200,000 during that period.

"That's a normal day for a council our size. The council would grind to a halt for maybe three or four months.

"I'm stunned that from zero consultation to out in the public arena, we've got a month to respond.

"They want transparency from us, well let's see some transparency from the government.

"They'll hide behind the fact there's been a couple of councils go bad in the southeast of Queensland and the public expects them to do this.

"We've all been tarred with the same brush and I'm exceptionally disappointed.

"There's been some massive departures from democracy in my view and the sacking of the Ipswich council, without commentating on the (alleged) corruption in the Ipswich Council, the people of Ipswich didn't have a chance.

"They weren't given a chance to say what they thought of it. It was overruling democracy and once again we're seeing this again now from the government.

Cr Williamson said the council would meet next week to decide on its official position on the reforms. He will also present them during an LGAQ special meeting on April 2.


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Greg Hallam.


LGAQ CEO Greg Hallam. Contributed


Mr Hallam agreed the counting could take weeks, based on interstate and Senate history.

"These are monumental changes," he said.

"It will be a much slower process and it's much more likely you get the micro parties doing well so people from the far left and the far right have a much better chance to get up."

Local Government Minister Sterling Hinchliffe said the government would engage with councils over coming weeks and he wanted to hear views on the proposed reforms.

"We're seeking to put forward a proposal that makes sure the number one thing that determines the outcomes of local government elections is voters, allowing them to have the power in their hands, the power for them to decide," he said.

"(It's also) to reduce the risk of local governments being dominated by special interests.

"The measures that are in place are about winding back the arms race in terms of campaign expenditure but also making sure it's a level playing field for all the participants."


Local Government Minister Stirling Hinchliffe to refer proposed Livingstone Shire Council boundary changes to the Local Government Change Commission.
Local Government Minister Stirling Hinchliffe. Allan Reinikka ROK310119alivings

Mr Hinchliffe said he understood concerns about voters being forced to fill out every square in areas like Mackay with a long list of candidates.

"It doesn't change the size of the ballot paper, that's a myth, it would potentially be the same number of candidates, it's just a different way of voting," he said.

"I do appreciate the point raised about exhaustion, a model that required filling every square on the ballot paper would be a potential problem and I've been very open about that's why we need to engage and consult about it."

Mr Hinchliffe said the CCC report found "influence through donations was a challenge to clean elections".

"There is a cost to clean elections," he said.

"Public funding is one of the tools or mechanisms by which we can clean up our elections and make sure we have fair ones for all."

Mr Hinchliffe said consultation would continue for the next few weeks and then he would address the next steps in parliament.

The reforms are expected to be put before State Parliament as early as next month and passed mid-year so they can be in place ahead of the council elections on March 28, 2020.

Any proposed reforms, if adopted, would go through the parliamentary committee process.