Councils call to cancel elections

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MOST of Victoria’s 79 councils want to cancel the elections scheduled to be held in October.

Mornington Peninsula Shire, while not having a specific point of view, says “primary considerations” should be the community’s health and safety as well as “upholding the core principles of local democracy”.

The Municipal Association of Victoria has told the state government that the council’s favour deferring the elections until next year.

The government is expected to decide in the next few weeks to go ahead or abandon the council elections because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“A delay should be considered if over the coming months it’s clear that holding the elections in October is in any way detrimental to the fight against COVID–19, or that the restrictions we need to have in place because of COVID-19 impact candidates’ ability to campaign within their local communities prior to the election and that this would unfairly disadvantage some candidates, for example new candidates,” the mayor Cr Sam Hearn said.

As the elections are decided by a postal vote social distancing does not become a problem on voting day, but it would be problematic for candidates, and incumbent councillors, if they wanted to hold meetings or campaign by door knocking.

Cr Hugh Fraser said vote counting “and tallying with proper scrutiny” would be difficult although he was “sure systems can be devised by the Victorian Electoral Commission to safely deal with that issue”.

“More importantly, if the current emergency arrangements continue, attracting the best possible candidates to stand for election and challenge existing councillors, might be problematic and prejudice organised campaigns with popular canvassing,” he said.

“This perhaps presents the strongest argument for delay in the elections later this year.

“The current legislative requirements and the right of residents and to vote every four years, ought not be lightly displaced – even in this emergency.”

Cr David Gill said he “couldn’t choose” between holding or deferring the elections “because there are good arguments on both sides”.

He said the four-yearly elections cost the shire about $1 million and, it they were cancelled this year, councillors elected in 2021 would serve a three-year term “so as not to break the cycle”.

Cr Gill said the shire’s income was “going to be down by millions” of dollars and some thought “might need to be given” to reducing councillors’ stipends and allowances.

The MAV said that 50 to 10 per cent of councils wanted the elections to go ahead.

Council CEOs, who had made “very insightful” responses, had highlighted the administrative difficulties of elections. The MAV councillor responses had been “very altruistic as the view was expressed that sitting councillors would be advantaged by holding the elections”.

First published in the Southern Peninsula News – 28 April 2020

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