A better business vote is good business

Democracy is underpinned by a basic principle: if you pay rates and taxes, you earn the right to vote. It shouldn’t be something we compromise — but in local council elections in NSW, that’s exactly what occurs.

We have a bizarre situation where a permanent electoral roll is maintained for residential voters, but not for commercial poperty owners or business. The current practice involves cleansing the non-residential roll after each election and then forcing re-registration through a process that is narrow, complex and discourages participation.

The business vote in the City of Sydney, for example, plummeted to less than 2000 in the 2012 council elections — a tiny share of the potential pool of voters. The same problem is repeated beyond our CBD, whether it’s Penrith or Parramatta, Waverley or Wollongong.

That is why the property investment industry has long sought a remedy that involves creation of a standing electoral roll for commercial property owners and business.

The property industry invests for the long haul in cities and regional centres, often owning office towers and shopping centres for decades.

In most cases, commercial property contributes the majority of the rates base. It generates economic activity, creating prosperity and vibrancy in our cities. We want to see our cities and major commercial centres succeed and thrive. We work with councils on outcomes to improve the sustainability, transport structure and urban amenity of our cities.

But that means the views of property owners and business need to be respected through the creation of a standing electoral roll.

Now let’s be clear — this is state legislation that needs to be fixed. And the prospect of the NSW government amending legislation to resolve the issue is welcomed, though it needs to extend beyond the City of Sydney.

This should not be a debate about personalities or party politics but the fundamental principles involved in a pure democratic process.

Several independent and parliamentary inquiries in recent years have recommended resolution of the problem.

Importantly, the case for reform has been acknowledged across party lines, so we hope a legislative agreement can be reached.

It would remove the notion that we have two classes of voters — or that one is less significant than the other. In doing so, it would recognise that commercial property owners and their tenants deserve to have their voice heard at the ballot box, too.

Glenn Byres is Executive Director, NSW at the Property Council of Australia

This piece was first published in the Daily Telegraph