Voters will remember, mayor MacKenzie warned

THE man who narrowly missed out on a seat in Port Stephens Council because of mayor Bruce MacKenzie's elaborate preference-swapping strategy at the last local government election issued a warning yesterday to those involved.


MISSED OUT: Colin Howard, second from left, with members of his Port Stephens election team, Diana Townsend, Margaret Wilkinson and Frank Ward.


"At the next election, the public will not only know, but they will be reminded of, what you did to secure power," Colin Howard said.

"If you think the people of Port Stephens are stupid . . . then I ask you to stand again, because people will remember."

Mr Howard, vice-president of the Tomaree Ratepayers and Residents' Association, led a group in East Ward and, despite securing the third highest vote, lost to MacKenzie team member John Morello on preferences.

On Saturday, the Newcastle Herald revealed that Cr MacKenzie and supporters with close links to the Liberal party devised a complex system of candidate preferencing to help secure seven of the 10 council seats and a voting majority.

The multimillionaire mayor was found to have links to 31 of the 66 candidates in the September 2012 election.

Cr MacKenzie said he had "no regrets" and acted in the best interests of Port Stephens.

The news has been met with mixed reactions, with some Port Stephens residents saying that though they might not agree with Cr MacKenzie's methods, his results speak for themselves.

Among his supporters is Raymond Terrace Business Chamber chairwoman Victoria Reynolds.

She said though she did not have a close relationship with the mayor, she had found him to be "proactive" and having "the interests of the town at heart".

She said the current council had worked well with the Raymond Terrace business community.

"If you look at their development support policies, they've supported Masters [a home improvement store] starting up in town, they're trying to get on with the Kings Hill development, and all of those things help to bring business and employment," she said.

"It [the election strategy] is personally not an issue for me, but I suppose it's up to another body to decide whether something has happened that should not have happened."

But Mr Howard described the strategy as "un-Australian" and not playing "fair".

The Soldiers Point resident said the preferential voting system was open to manipulation and needed an overhaul.

"If it was first past the post, I would be a councillor," Mr Howard said. "Morello won on preferences, it was not won on voting. But to be honest, with the the way the council is, I am actually relieved not to be involved."

Cr Morello has not responded to the Herald's repeated requests for an interview.

Port Stephens resident and former councillor Darrell Dawson said there was no doubt the laws needed changing.

"The electoral laws, across the board in all levels of government, permit this type of thing," he said.

"The system is being manipulated and not used to the letter or the spirit of the laws."

Port Stephens resident and member of the Maaiangal Clan of the Worimi Nation Carol Ridgeway-Bissett described the strategy as "undemocratic" and lacking "transparency".

Ms Ridgeway-Bissett said there was no doubt the public was "caught off guard", but said media coverage meant people would be "aware" when they went back to the polls in 2016.

"I think it was very unethical how this all played out," she said.

"MacKenzie won by a wafer thin margin, it was very close. My opinion is that people should be able to win positions on council on their own merit, not by doing preference deals with other groups."

Cheaper election troubles


 OUTSOURCING the local government election in Port Stephens resulted in a ‘‘shambles’’ that made it difficult to raise concerns about the conduct of candidates before the vote, critics have said.

In 2012 Port Stephens was one of 14 local government areas that employed a private company to conduct its election in place of the NSW Electoral Commission. 

The NSW Parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters has been investigating how that experiment went  and is due to issue the final report of its inquiry this month.

A Division of Local Government report released last June   found the majority of the councils that ran their own elections reported positive feedback.

In his own submission to that report Port Stephens Council general manager Peter Gesling said the council decided to use a private company following delays in vote counting and high costs in the 2008 election.  According to his submission the move helped the council save an estimated $54,000 and meant results were known earlier than in past elections.

But elsewhere in Port Stephens the assessment has been less than glowing, with evidence that some parties were confused about the appropriate avenue for complaints during the election.

Nigel Waters, the registered officer for the Greens  during the election, said  it had been unclear who should be approached with concerns about candidate conduct. 

‘‘There were certainly a few occasions when we had queries about the use of the different how-to-vote cards, or the identity of candidates,’’ he said.  ‘‘When we went to the private company they didn’t know the answers, and when we went to the Electoral Commission they put their hands up and said ‘Don’t ask us’.’’  

Mr Waters said, in his opinion, ‘‘some of the knowledge of some of the returning officers’’  was  below standard.

Any savings made by the council represented a ‘‘false economy’’ because of what he described as the lack of efficiency in running the vote.

Following the vote, councillors lined up to slam the running of the election, describing it variously as ‘‘unprofessional’’, ‘‘awful’’ and ‘‘crap’’ and criticising the organisation of voting materials, knowledge of NSW electoral laws, delays in the vote count and access to electoral roll data.

Councillors, candidates and campaign staff also criticised the Queensland-based company hired by the council, the Australian Election Company, because it used three returning officers within the first two weeks of the election period.



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