Journal article

Voting rights and Australian local democracy

Local government Voting Democracy Australia

Section 256 of the Local Government Act 1993 (Tas) is a curious provision. It indicates that, at any given election for a municipal area in Tasmania, any given voter 'has no more than 2 votes’. This provision is designed to facilitate a franchise based partly on property qualifications, and in which plural voting is explicitly allowed. It may seem extraordinary, in the 21st century, that such a franchise may be found in Australian law. But Tasmania is not an outlier. Indeed, in five of Australia’s six states, local government franchises include property qualifications, votes for corporations, and various forms of plural voting.

This aspect of Australian local government has been touched on before in the political science and public administration literature and in local government scholarship. Occasionally, there is high profile public discussion of individual instances of this phenomenon, especially with respect to the City of Sydney. But the City of Sydney is just one example of a much broader understudied phenomenon. There is no existing comprehensive nationwide catalogue and analysis of the legislation that underpins this phenomenon.

This article fills the gap in the literature by providing an analysis of legislation across the country. Part II provides a concise overview of the historical context in Britain and in Australia. Part III is the central contribution of the article, describing and analysing the legislation across the six Australian states. Part III is designed to accurately convey the complexity and lack of uniformity of local government franchises within and across the states. While this article’s primary goal is to analyse the legislation as it stands today, in Part IV I outline the case for reform of voting rights at local government elections. The argument developed in Part IV is that, whenever some voters have more votes than others, there will be concerns about inequality. More precisely, there will be concerns that property owners and business owners are afforded a greater democratic say than other voters in determining the direction of a significant element of Australia’s system of government.

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