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“Worst electoral system in the country?” Warnings sent to agents after 2020 election probe

David Schout

A City of Melbourne councillor has conceded that it “might just take the prize for the worst electoral system in the country” after 20 real estate agents were warned following an investigation into the 2020 election.

In a recurring issue for the council, the Local Government Inspectorate found that the 20 agents admitted illegally completing ballot papers on behalf of landlords whose properties they manage.

Most of the owners lived overseas, “most commonly in China”, and some had “authorised their agent verbally or in writing to vote on their behalf.”

But despite finding evidence of the breach, the agents will escape with a slap on the wrist as fraud was not detected and, instead, they were found to have misunderstood the electoral laws.

“Our investigation did not uncover any systemic or intentional ballot fraud,” chief municipal inspector Michael Stefanovic said.

“The issues mainly arose due to these real estate agents not understanding our electoral laws and communication issues with owners that were exacerbated by pandemic restrictions.”

Many agents were unaware that voters absent from Victoria during the 15 days prior to the close of voting are excused from voting.

The agencies reported that the property owners generally “had limited English”, “were not interested in the election” and “communicated with their agents in Chinese through WeChat”.

Cr Rohan Leppert said the system was in urgent need of reform.

“While no evidence of ballot tampering has ever been brought before the courts, it is clear that City of Melbourne elections are overly reliant on the honesty of a handful of real estate agents,” he told Southbank News.

 

We might just take the prize for the worst electoral system in the country. Consistent with the clear will of the community and the past positions established by the council, the electoral system simply must be reviewed.

 

The investigation looked at 216 ballot papers completed by representatives from 21 real estate agencies, and those ballot papers under investigation were excluded from the ballot count, meaning they did not affect the outcome of the election.

It follows a probe into the 2018 Melbourne Lord Mayoral by-election vote in which five people were also given formal warnings.

In that by-election, 6889 ballots were sent to voters “care of” real estate agents, with large local real estate group MICM receiving 1700 ballot packs alone.

In July 2021 councillors voted for a state government review of the City of Melbourne Act 2001 which also, controversially, grants one vote to residents in local government elections, while businesses were entitled to two votes.

That means that a business that rents a desk within the municipality is currently entitled to greater participation than local residents, as well as the chance to run in elections.

Councillors urged that the review begin in 2022, in time for the next election in 2024.

The “unique” system has not been properly reviewed for more than 20 years, while the electoral system for the other 78 Victorian councils was reviewed for the Local Government Act 2020.

At the March 1 Future Melbourne Committee meeting, Cr Leppert put forward a motion that urged Minister for Local Government Shaun Leane to respond to the request.

“The problems with the City of Melbourne electoral system are overwhelming, and the community has long been frustrated with Melbourne’s unique electoral provisions,” he said.

“The state government seems content to turn a blind eye to the flaws in the City of Melbourne Act, and my motion is the latest attempt to bring on a comprehensive review so that it can be completed ahead of the 2024 election.”

“The Minister for Local Government needs to decide if he wants a healthy democratic system for Melbourne that is trusted by the voters, or if he is content to continue letting our democratic systems fall apart.”

Fellow Greens councillors Olivia Ball said electoral integrity had “scarcely been more important than it is now”.

“Democracy cannot be taken for granted,” she said at the March 1 meeting.

“We will be held to account by the public who want a transparent and reliable of government and elections. We ask the minister to defend this patch in the quilt of democracy in Australia and to do so promptly, so we’re adequately prepared for the 2024 election and the public can have confidence in both the process and outcome.”

The motion was unanimously endorsed by councillors •

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