39 Victorian councils are currently undergoing reviews of their electoral structure – the number of councillors, number of councillors per ward and the exact boundaries of those wards. Those reviews are the conclusion of a process kicked off prior to the 2020 election, when legislative changes shifted the rules on what sort of electoral structures are permitted, pushed through parliament by Adem Somyurek, who was local government minister at the time but went on to be kicked out of the ALP.
While Somyurek is no longer in the government, his local government elections agenda has continued to be implemented, with this review process the final culmination.
Victoria has been steadily increasing the proportionality of local councils since the early 2000s. About half of all councils exclusively used single-member wards in 2004, but this has dwindled to very few by 2019. Representation reviews would regularly replace single-member wards with multi-member wards, but rarely go the other way.
This had led to a gradual increase in the average number of councillors per ward (district magnitude) from 1.51 in 2004 to 2.45 in 2016. The magnitude of a council ward is a fairly straightforward way of measuring how proportional the result will be.
But this was quickly reversed by the 2020 legislative changes.
The 2020 changes imposed much stricter rules on what sort of structures would be permitted. Single-member wards would become the only option for metropolitan councils (excepting the City of Melbourne, which has no wards), while rural councils would also have the options of being undivided or having equal-sized multi-member wards.
The latter two structures are actually quite good and produce proportional results. I have never liked how Victoria used uneven numbers of councillors per ward – for example, a four-member ward and three one-member wards, or three three-member wards and one two-member ward.
This means that Victoria is moving towards two quite different electoral structures depending on whether you’re in an urban or rural council – proportional representation in the regions, and single-member wards in the city.
There had been a bunch of representation reviews completed and due to be implemented in 2020, and overall those reviews were due to increase the proportionality of the system. The average district magnitude was due to increase to 2.59, up from 2.45 in 2016, but instead that number dropped to 2.11. Every urban council due for review had single-member wards imposed, regardless of the consultation process that generally recommended more proportional structures.
About half of all Victorian councils (40/79) now have structures that comply with the new law, so the current review process applies to the other 39. This map shows which councils fall into each category, colour-coded by the current electoral structure. “Single-multi-mix” refers to a council with some single-member wards and some multi-member wards. I have distinguished between multi-member wards where they all have the same magnitude, and when they do not.
There is a dramatic difference. Most of the rural councils being reviewed currently have a mix of single- and multi-member wards. The outer urban councils tend to have different-magnitude multi-member wards, while the inner city councils tend to have same-magnitude wards. Notably those council structures would be permissible in rural Victoria, but bafflingly not in Melbourne.
The new electoral structure rules appear to be imposing radically different electoral structures in Melbourne and in rural Victoria. These next two tables show up the difference by comparing councils that have been reviewed and those that have not in these two area.
This chart shows how many councils have each of the five types of structures.
Melbourne is due to consist entirely of single-member wards. That means seventeen councils that currently have some degree of proportional representation will have it stripped away by the current reviews.
In rural Victoria, by constrast, the single-member wards mixed with multi-member wards are all facing the chop. There are a handful of single-member ward councils in Victoria, and it’s possible a few of those single-multi councils may go to single-member, but the current state of the reviews suggests they will rather move to more proportionality.
This next chart shows the average magnitude per ward. For those councils yet to be reviewed, the Melbourne councils are substantially more proportional, but post-review the story is completely flipped.
You can also see this by looking at the next chart, which looks at the historical record of district magnitude for urban and rural councils.
Rural councils have always been a bit more proportional, probably due to the presence of undivided councils where the magnitude is 5-9. But both urban and rural councils were trending in the right direction, right up until Somyurek’s legislation bucked the trend. Rural councils have continued on their previous trend, while Melbourne councils have experienced a reversal of a decade’s progress.
So finally, what is actually happening with the reviews? They are taking place in three rounds between now and January. The first round consists entirely of rural councils, most of which currently have a mix of single- and multi-member wards.
In each council in the first round, a preliminary report was prepared with 2-3 options. The final report has been finished and sent to the minister for approval, but we don’t yet know the outcome.
For every one of these 12 councils, one of the options would be an undivided council, with a magnitude of 7-9 members, compared to the current average magnitude of 1.4-2.33.
For each council, they have also suggested an alternative of multi-member wards of equal size, either 2-, 3- or 4-member wards. In just five of these councils they have also offered a single-member ward alternative.
This suggests that most of these councils will move to a more proportional system, either consistent multi-member wards replacing single-member, or moving to the much more proportional undivided system.
The second and third rounds will cover urban councils, where we know the law only permits single-member wards. I’m not looking forward to it.