By KIERAN FINNANE
The Territory local government elections, with their new counting system, have delivered for the tiny community of Nyirripi in the Southern Tanami Ward of Central Desert Shire. Nyirripi now have seat on the council with their local representative, Jacob Spencer. This is a big win for the community as it was from there that the drive for reform of the counting system came.
In 2008 Nyirripi’s candidate, Teddy Gibson Jakamarra, won the highest number of first preference votes of any candidate in the ward but failed to get a seat on council. When the community’s Local Board realised that the cards were stacked against them because of the exhaustive preferential counting system, they asked the shire to lobby the NT Government about it. The shire councillors listened to a presentation by Dr Will Sanders (ANU and Desert Knowledge CRC, pictured), who showed how the old system favoured large group dominance. Armed with this evidence the shire wrote to Local Government Minister Malarndirri McCarthy requesting the review which ultimately led to Territory-wide reform for the local government electoral system.
The reform also had a definite impact in Alice Springs, says Dr Sanders, reflected in the early election of candidates at either end of the political spectrum: on the ‘right’, Steve Brown, Eli Melky, Dave Douglas in positions one, two and three, and then on the ‘left’, the Greens’ Jade Kudrenko in position four.
The old system would have favoured the ‘centre’ candidates earlier. Apart from being well-respected they also had incumbency in their favour, but Liz Martin was not elected till the fifth position, with Brendan Heenan following at seventh behind youthful newcomer Chansey Paech.
Mayor Damien Ryan has done well out of the election, comments Dr Sanders. There was “significant leakage” from his rivals despite them all placing him last on their how-to-vote cards.
“He picked up around a quarter of preferences at each exclusion: 135/489 from Bitar, 397/ 1217 and 32/132 from Douglas, and 610/ 1972 from Melky. So at that rate of leakage he ended up being pretty safe with 43.6% of the primary vote.”
He now heads a council with two possible voting blocks which, with his vote, can become a majority. The challenge will be for him – and for the centre to left councillors – to take the initiative in setting the agenda, rather than be simply reacting to or managing the agenda set by the energetic right, as well as the administration.
Overall, Dr Sanders describes the Alice election as “fabulous” for the real interest taken in it by the community and by candidates of very different opinions and approaches wanting to stand up and be counted.
The shires, however, continue to struggle to have this sense of local relevance and connectedness. The number of uncontested and failed or partly failed elections in the shires (leading to supplementary elections having to be called) has gone up since 2008, says Dr Sanders. In Alice’s neighbouring shires, Central Desert and MacDonnell, only two of the wards, one in each shire, had elections where there were more candidates than vacancies. There will be supplementary elections for one ward in each shire where there were fewer candidates than vacancies, with nominations closing on April 24.
In the remaining two wards of each shire the number of candidates equalled the number of vacancies and so they were returned unopposed. This possibly reflects “processes of community discussion throwing up ‘just the right number’ of nominations for positions available”, says Dr Sanders.
“This was common in the ‘little, remote-area local governments’ prior to 2008 and is still common in the ‘remaining little local governments’ on the outskirts of Darwin due to the abandonment of the proposed Top End Shire in early 2008. Eight out of 10 wards in Coomalie and Litchfield had ‘just the right number’ of nominations for available councillor positions in 2012.”
It is also possible, however, that the uncontested wards reflect a loss of interest in the shires. The initial poor electoral system may have contributed to this but there are obviously other challenges, says Dr Sanders.
It is interesting to note, for example, that the old electoral system favoured dominance of Yuendumu in the Southern Tanami Ward, but all four of their representatives failed to see out the first term.
It is also sad to note the decline of interest in representation from the Anmatjere Ward. In 2008 nine candidates contested the four vacancies. Among the successful four was James Jampajimpa Glenn, the youngest councillor in the shire, who was then elected as the first shire president. In 2012 only one candidate came forward, the incumbent Adrian Dixon from Laramba, and he was duly returned unopposed.
Loss of interest?
Prior to 2008 the Anmatjere Community Government Council, representing the open town of Ti Tree on the Stuart Highway as well as a number of Aboriginal (Anmatjere-speaking) communities, was one of the more effective. Dr Sanders spent a lot of time observing its operations between 2004 and 2008.
He has described it as “a small regional local government that was big enough to achieve organisational continuity and was both useful to and valued by its 1,000 or so constituents”.
He observed “the building of a managerial team of about half a dozen and some increase in the range of services provided by the organisation” as well as “two orderly transitions of Chief Executive Officer and of Council chair”. He said councillors took seriously representation of their wards as well as the region.
Then came the super-shire changes, with the Anmatjere Council rolled into the Central Desert Shire along with five other local governments, across a huge swathe of land stretching north of Alice from WA to Queensland.
In many ways Ti Tree would have been the logical choice for the shire head office but the choice to position it in Alice Springs 100 kilometres south of the shire’s southern boundary “seemed in many ways to set the pattern for much that was to come ” – which has been essentially to head towards “becoming a well governed, urban-based organisation that is of rather limited daily relevance to its remote area constituents”.
“This is not an organisation which the remote area localities and constituents created for themselves, or over which they feel great influence. They can accept the services the Shire offers or look for alternatives. But any attempt to influence the Shire through representation will come up against its vast geographic scale, its distant central administration, and also [until the recent reform] an inadequate electoral system.”
Central Desert is not alone in this: “Seven of the eight shires now have major offices outside their boundaries in the Territory’s major urban centres of Darwin, Alice Springs and Katherine. For most constituents, these are no longer accessible local governments whose headquarters are just down the road, or even an hour or two’s drive away. They are distant, urban-based organisations experienced by locals as somewhat alien and bureaucratic, like higher levels of government.”
Dr Sanders does not deny the problems of the past small remote area councils: “Regional up-scaling was in many ways a legitimate objective” but the system has swung from “possibly a bit small” to “definitely too big”.
It will be interesting to observe how all this plays out, in the immediate term with the supplementary elections and over the next five years . The Country Liberals have mooted changes but without much clarity about how they would “at least cost satisfy the need for financial accountability and the enhanced provision of services through greater local empowerment” [their emphasis].
The first meetings of the 2nd Central Desert and MacDonnell Shire Councils take place this week, while the 12th Alice Springs Town Council kicks off next Monday.
Pictured below: Shire business rolls on. The pool at Santa Teresa reopened just in time for the end of summer, following extensive repairs undertaken by MacDonnell Shire and funded by the NT Department of Sport and Recreation, CentreCorp Foundation, and LGANT, with YMCA Central Australia and Swimming Australia offering on the ground support. The shire organised this Pool Party for the weekend of March 31 to April 1 and the pool has been open again over the Easter school holidays. The existing children’s pool is “unsalvageable” but the shire has applied for funds to replace it. Photo courtesy MacDonnell Shire.