Mayoral elections for capital cities are notable as they present as a perfect microcosm of the wider political landscape.
The 2020 City of Perth election has some notable themes and dynamics:
- a lingering perception of impropriety from previous mayor & council
- the range of candidates on the ballot
- the influence of Seven West vs other media
- the various sources & types of donations & donations-in-kind received
- the Overton window for issues
- the skewed demographics of residents
- non-standard voting practices
Perceptions of impropriety
The previous mayor and council were suspended, an extensive inquiry was launched, and a report was published on the findings. The report was highly-critical of the culture and actions of the previous council. For people who were paying attention to the goings-on of the City of Perth in the last decade, the report confirmed what many thought – dysfunction arising from personality politics and a very poor standard of governance.
The inquiry and 2,000 page report took two years and cost ratepayers $7.2m. The cost will only prove to be of value if the recommendations are implemented to prevent the council from repeating the mistakes of the past. The new mayor will have a significant task ahead to demonstrate that the city and council activities will be conducted with appropriate probity and competence.
Seven West & The General Media Landscape
In Western Australia, Seven West Media (SWM) is the biggest influence on the local media landscape via Seven TV channel, the West Australian newspaper and most importantly for local politics, The Community Newspaper Group.
The Community Newspaper Group publishes 23 community newspapers within the metropolitan region of Perth. It is in these widely-distributed newspapers that local government politics receives most of its coverage and analysis.
This is all of particular relevance in this election as a SWM employee is running as a mayoral candidate and has what appears to be the tacit support of the SWM organisation for their campaign.
There is an independent local newspaper group (Perth Voice / Fremantle Herald group) who provide analysis of local politics and it was the Perth Voice in particular that provided very pointed coverage of the conduct of the previous Perth mayor and councilors.
The other notable player in the local media scene is WA Business News (WABN), which is widely read by Perth’s businesses community. WABN has written a number of articles on the election and highlighted the profiles of some candidates.
Local government elections follow similar patterns as State and Federal elections. It’s a simple dynamic to understand.
- Voters decide how to vote based on what they want and what they know.
- Money buys advertising.
- Advertising boosts targeted/widespread messaging.
- Messaging influences perceptions.
- Voter’s perception share the outcome.
This all raises the question of the question of what are the accepted standards for donations.
Is the issue of donations in politics addressed by having a transparent register of disclosures on donors? While not the panacea, it’s certainly a move in the right direction.
Much to my continuing disappointment, this is another election which is mostly defined by personality politics.
Candidates are listed in the order their profiles appear on the the City of Perth website. The candidate names are linked to pdfs of their official registered campaign profiles.
The analysis and commentary below are my own opinions.
An ex-broadcast journalist who is solid at the PR aspects of the role and an actual long-term resident of the city. However, there is nothing that really differentiates him from any of the other candidates.
The “celebrity” candidate who has strong name recognition from his position as a news & sports presenter on Channel 7. The platform provided via SWM (including a regular column in the West Australian) have provided a huge leverage point which no other candidate can even come close to in terms of their organic media reach.
A retired judge who would bring experience with law & order issues and promises good governance – but is that what the role of mayor in Perth requires? The good governance aspect certainly, but that is something that is beyond the scope of one person to remedy and would require more than strict legal interpretation of the Local Government Act. Would be more suited to a position on a committee with responsibility for reviewing the governance processes in the wider local government ecosystem.
Founder of Spacecubed co-working space, he has a good network and reputation among the start-up and small business community. Youngest candidate on the ballot which may benefit from the skewed demographics of the city.
Positioned as one of the lead candidates in no small part due to the depth and influence of her networks. Considered by many to be the joint favourite.
Another solid candidate in terms of her professional experience and involvement with various city-based initiatives but will likely struggle to differentiate herself from other candidates.
Business owner candidate offering to donate $50k of salary to youth-based initiatives. Personally I am strongly against these types of gestures as it creates perverse incentives. Offering to forego salary should not be utilised as an election promise.
Being mayor of a capital city is a full-time job that comes with a full-time salary. If the mayor chooses to donate their salary, or part of it, they are free to do so.
However, not all aspiring political candidates can afford to make these types of gestures and nor should they be expected to. It’s undoubtedly born of good intentions and candidates are free to make any philanthropic gestures they like with their own money but I would rather a mayor who worked hard for their salary and delivered value to ratepayers through their actions rather than signalling promises of “delivering value” via philanthropic gestures which are offset by their own personal wealth.
There are three main topics being discussed as core issues during this election:
- Safety on city streets
- Activating the CBD
The homelessness situation in the City of Perth is an obvious and visible issue. Public advocacy and a commitment to sustainable solutions by the mayor and council are important however it is fundamentally, and financially, much more a State and Federal Government issue. The City of Perth does play a significant role in facilitating the discussion and coordinating resources but the main way the mayor will contribute towards addressing homelessness is through a strong and engaged working relationship with the State Government. Anything more is overstating the role and influence of the Mayor in this matter.
Street safety is another matter which attracts a lot of attention due to perceptions of increasing street violence, particularly in the CBD and Northbridge. Media reports, and WA police statistics, indicate a rising trend in offences in recent years. However, as with homelessness, it is predominantly a WA State Government issue meaning most promises are exercises in rhetoric and it is the strategy from the Minister for Police that will be the main factor in addressing the situation in the coming years.
Activating Perth CBD remains as the single most pressing long-term issue facing the City of Perth. Monday to Friday, workers stream into the city in the morning and leave at 6pm. The CBD has long struggled to maintain a vibrant city dynamic outside of business hours. Activating the city requires both short-term and long-term initiatives. In the short term, efforts must be made to attract people in from the suburbs for shopping and entertainment. In the longer-term, the city must plan to increase the resident population significantly.
The role of mayor in relation to issues should not be understated, nor should it be overstated. The mayor plays a pivotal role as a focal point for messaging and strategy on key issues, but it is the ability to work with the State Government which will determine the long-term viability and success of any initiatives.
As with every election, it’s all about the numbers of votes, which in this instance is relatively small compared to other elections. In the 2017 council elections, 5,427 votes were cast from 14,716 registered electors. In the last mayoral election in 2015, 4,138 votes were cast for two mayoral candidates from 11,385 registered electors..
Notably, the City of Perth has a disproportionate number of young people in comparison to other local government areas.
49% of residents in the 2016 census were between the ages of 20-25, in comparison to a national average of 21%. The number who are registered to vote and who will vote in the election is obviously much lower.
The counting method for this election is simple. Whoever receives the most #1 votes wins.
There is no ranked-choice or transferable voting i.e. voting for candidates in order of preference and candidates getting flow on preferences as others get knocked out as is the manner in state and federal elections.
This is very relevant as there is a larger field of candidates than previous mayoral elections. As there is very little distinction between candidates besides personality and affiliations, the bottom 2-3 candidates will cannabalise votes from a top 3 candidate who would likely emerge victorious in a smaller field.
Given the smaller number of total electors, the margin of successes will be very close with the result likely to be decided by a margin of less than 500 votes.
Despite all the media influence, donations, business networks and messaging, young residents are the most influential demographic in this election. If any candidate can activate that vote, they will easily win. However, young people have low levels of engagement in local government elections as candidates tend to focus on addressing the issues of rate-payers.
In my opinion, it’s the property owning / business vote which usually decides local government elections and this one is unlikely to be any different. However, no single candidate stands out as the saviour for rate-payers.
Based on media coverage, it looks like a two horse race between Zampalas – the SWM-anointed mayor-in-waiting, and Di Bain – the representative of Perth’s wealthy elite. As with every horse race, there’s always the outsiders who are waiting for a late surge. Will the field offer up any surprises when the votes are counter? I hope so, but think not.
Disclaimer: I volunteered 6 hours of time assisting Brodie McCullogh’s campaign to get people registered on the electoral roll in time to participate in the election.