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Politics at the grassroots

By Richard Stanton - posted Wednesday, 10 September 2008

Hidden among the shock and horror of recent New South Wales government activities is an election that gets comparatively little coverage and receives only lukewarm attention from voters, despite its “real” democratic credentials.

The local government elections, to be held across NSW next Saturday, are the grassroots of politics. Historically, local government provides a nursery for party politicians seeking higher office; Mark Latham cut his teeth on Liverpool City Council, as did former NSW’s Ministers Craig Knowles and George Paciullo.

More importantly it provides us with the potential to elect “real” independent candidates to represent our interests and to keep our cities and towns the way we want them to be kept.


When we think about local councils, we think about roads, rates and rubbish. We want our potholes filled, our garbage collected and our rates to be as low as possible. In fact, viewed from that perspective, why would anyone other than ratepayers be interested in voting at the election this coming Saturday? Why would 18 to 24-year-olds, who rarely own real estate, be interested in what’s going on at local council?

Surprisingly, this year, there are more candidates in that age bracket than ever before, and it is not because they are party affiliates looking for an education. Like the rest of us, they have taken an interest in what happens in their cities and towns and come to the conclusion that they can play an active role by getting elected.

But it has not been easy for candidates this time around.

Changes to local government legislation (which incidentally, is run from state government) means candidates have this year been required to engage an agent to check on their activities and to keep track of all their resource allocation.

In the past, a struggling independent candidate might have got a few bob from a local business owner in Tamworth, or a few free pizzas from a Wagga Wagga all-nighter to feed her troops after they spent all day handing out leaflets at polling stations, all of which was undeclared.

Now the rules require all financial transactions plus all human resource allocation to be documented.


This can be easily achieved by party candidates with plenty of backup, but it is a nightmare for the struggling independent, someone who might have a great deal to contribute to a local council, but is being swamped by NSW government red tape.

Independents are the life blood of local government, but another problem they face this time around is the number of candidates contesting the ballot. Changes to the legislation require candidates who are “ungrouped” to be placed in a single column on the far right of the ballot paper. Being in this spot is pretty bad, as a large proportion of voters take the “donkey” option of voting for the first name on the ballot paper, or they vote “informal”. So candidates have formed groups, which means a lot more candidates names are on the ballot papers and a lot more time is necessary, if a voter is serious, to find out all there is to know about the candidates.

In Newcastle (64) Maitland (57) and Lake Macquarie (54) there are a total of 175 candidates across 11 wards representing Liberal, Labor, Greens, Independents and other interest groups calling themselves independents. Not all is as it seems.

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About the Author

Richard Stanton is a political communication writer and media critic. His most recent book is Do What They Like: The Media In The Australian Election Campaign 2010.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Richard Stanton

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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