BY LAWRENCE GIBBONS
Thousands of businesses, who are legally required to vote in the upcoming City of Sydney elections, could be left off of the electoral rolls completely. The City of Sydney failed to properly notify corporations that the deadline for them to submit mandatory enrolment forms was July 4. Businesses who failed to enrol could be penalised as much as $2,200.
The City has begrudgingly spent more than $8 million of ratepayers’ funds on a campaign to advise businesses that the enrolment deadline was July 14 when the actual deadline for corporations was ten days earlier.
Independent City of Sydney Councillor Angela Vithoulkas has denounced the situation, stating: “The 4th of July may have been Independence Day in the US, but in the City of Sydney, it was the day that democracy died for thousands of business operators who have been robbed of their chance to have a vote.”
Clr Vithoulkas shed light on the confusion, “I continue getting calls from business owners who want to vote but don’t know when or how to. It’s unfair that these hard-working business operators are not only being denied democracy but face the additional threat of fines up to $2,200 if they fail to register.”
Lord Mayor Clover Moore has been a vocal opponent of mandatory business voting requirements. Under changes to the City of Sydney Act, passed into law early last year, Ms Moore’s Council must ensure that every business is enrolled to vote. The City is required to create and maintain a roll of all commercial tenants and property owners who are eligible to vote in local Council elections.
The legislation is based on the City of Melbourne Act, where Australia’s second largest city conducts a census of all commercial properties to determine who is eligible to vote. Rather than door knock, Sydney opted to communicate with businesses by booking ads, leafleting and posting letters to property owners and commercial tenants.
By not informing corporations of the July 4 enrollment deadline, the City may have disenfranchised thousands of voters from the upcoming Council elections. The City’s actions could substantially affect the outcome of the election in Ms Moore’s favour, if the State government allows it to go ahead as scheduled on September 10.
According to a statement issued by the office of the City’s CEO, “The City sent information packs and forms to owners, occupiers and rate paying lessees requesting that forms be submitted. The information brochure included with the pack identified the nomination cut-off date for corporations as being 4 July, 2016. The letter and information brochure refers recipients to the City’s webpages which also highlight the nomination cut-off date for corporations as being 4 July, 2016.”
Copies of the brochure and letters sent out by Council were obtained by the City Hub. The letter, which was posted to businesses in March, stated that the deadline to enrol was in April not July. The 22 page brochure, which was also posted to some businesses, contained two passing references to the July 4 deadline on pages 18 and 21.
Meanwhile Labor Councillor Linda Scott has raised concerns that businesses who do manage to enrol could receive promotional materials from Lord Mayor Clover Moore during the election campaign. On the enrolment form, businesses can agree to receive marketing materials from the City by ticking a box.
As the official spokesperson for the City of Sydney, the Lord Mayor’s image regularly appears on Council literature, giving her a substantial advantage as an incumbent seeking re-election. Clr Scott has called on Lord Mayor Clover Moore to rule out using her delegated authority to communicate with those on the City’s non-residential register and roll at the expense of the rate payers of the City of Sydney. The matter was put to a vote at the latest Council meeting and the Lord Mayor used her casting vote to preserve her powers.
In response to a question from the City Hub, a spokesperson from the City of Sydney stated, “No Councillors, including the Lord Mayor, will have access to any of the information submitted to the City for the Non-Residential Register… No-one will be contacted until after the local government election. Following the election, only those who have agreed to their contact information being shared will receive an email offering an opt-in option to e-newsletters …The Council Elections Unit will not know how many have ticked the box until the roll closes on August 1.”