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City council seeks "urgent" election advice amid virus fears

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Adelaide City Council has requested that SA Health and the state’s emergency coordinator provide “urgent” advice about whether the central ward supplementary election should proceed in light of COVID-19.

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In a letter sent yesterday to SA Health chief executive Chris McGowan and state emergency coordinator Grant Stevens, the council’s CEO Mark Goldstone wrote the Electoral Commission had no legal power to call off the election, which is conducted via non-compulsory postal voting.

The Electoral Commission of SA claims the election can proceed with “minimal risk to voters” and staff will adopt extra hygiene practices when handling returned ballot envelopes.  

But Goldstone said continuing with the election could pose a risk to public health if candidates campaigned by door-knocking, or if electors travelled to and from properties to collect ballot papers.

He said the eight candidates who have nominated to fill the central ward seat left vacant by former councillor Houssam Abiad had already begun their election campaigns “and therefore I request urgent assistance and advice”.

“I have discussed with the Electoral Commissioner Mick Sherry the concerns and impacts that COVID-19 will have on the election process,” Goldstone wrote in the letter, seen by InDaily.

“The Commissioner has advised that as the election had already commenced, there are no provisions within the Local Government (Elections) Act 1999 that provide any powers to postpone or suspend the election, or change the date.”

Goldstone wrote the “only possible course of action” might be to have a candidate lodge a petition with the Court of Disputed Returns to determine whether the election should proceed.

“Without any legal provisions to postpone or vary the election process Council is seeking advice from you on how best to manage public health risks.”

If the Court of Disputed Returns declares the election void, it could be up to the council chamber to elect someone of their choosing for the central ward seat. 

It follows a decision by elected members at Tuesday night’s council meeting to request advice from SA Health and the state’s emergency coordinator about whether proceeding with the ballot could carry a health risk.

Deputy Lord Mayor Alexander Hyde, who led the call, said Adelaide should consider following a New South Wales decision to delay its local government elections by 12 months.  

“While the Electoral Commissioner may not have the power to vary it (the election), I want SA Health to look at it and see if this is something we should be doing right now given any potential public health risk,” he told InDaily. 

“If so, they will provide that advice to the state coordinator and if he thinks something needs to be done, then he would have more power than the Electoral Commissioner to do that.  

“It could be argued that the election is already anti-democratic given a lot of businesses aren’t there, a lot of people are not going into work to collect their ballot papers, they don’t want to go out unnecessarily.

“Bearing all that in mind and knowing the anxiety that’s in the community, I think for peace of mind we at least need some firmer advice on whether it’s safe to proceed.”

But some candidates have downplayed health concerns, saying they support the Electoral Commission’s decision to proceed and are adopting campaigning methods that avoid face-to-face contact with voters.

Property consultant Nathan Paine said the coronavirus pandemic had “changed the whole context of the campaign”.  

“There’s no kissing babies or knocking on doors and shaking hands; instead it’s more online and dropping stuff into letterboxes as opposed to how you’d traditionally do it,” he said.

“I think the biggest challenge of holding an election at this time is it has the potential to disenfranchise non-residential voters, who, as a result of government requirements to shut down, may not be able to participate in the election.

“I’m thinking retailers, hospitality venues – those people who pay a lot in rates and taxes that may not find it easy to get into town to collect ballot papers and participate.”

Publican Gareth Lewis said he didn’t think there was an “actual public health risk, as long as the ballots are treated properly”. 

“I’m happy for it (the election) to continue – I would have thought if they wanted to delay it they would have made that call a month ago,” he said.

“But if they do I wouldn’t be surprised.”

Fellow candidate and SA History Trust CEO Greg Mackie said he “understood where the motive is coming from” to seek health advice, but he was concerned that any move to call the election off would be “fundamentally less democratic” if current elected members were given the power to choose the new central ward councillor.

“It’s in the nature of democratic chambers that there will be differences of opinion and it’s also in the nature of democratic chambers that allegiances, alliances, factions – call it what you will – are formed over time,” he said.  

“I would as a ratepayer and as a voter have more concern about that choice being left to the chamber than I would as a candidate to reach people and encourage them to come to an informed position.”  

Parliamentary advisor and candidate Malwina Wyra said she was “deeply cynical” about the move to refer the matter to SA Health and the state emergency coordinator, claiming it could give the majority Team Adelaide faction the power to choose the new central ward councillor if the election is declared void.

“I think they’re (Team Adelaide) concerned who they want to win won’t win,” she said.

Hyde clarified that it was not his intention for sitting councillors to appoint to fill the central ward vacancy.

North ward councillor Phil Martin, who opposed the council’s decision to approach SA Health, described claims that the election could pose a health risk as “wild assertions that are completely at odds with the advice of agencies… (and) risk exacerbating public anxiety about the pandemic”.  

An Electoral Commission spokesperson said voting packs that provide information about the election and candidates would be mailed to the 11,689 central ward electors from Tuesday.

Eight candidates have nominated for the central ward seat: Stuart Whiting, Wayne Chao, Greg Mackie, Gareth Lewis, Doha Khan, Nathan Paine, Darren Gitsham and Malwina Wyra.

The polls open on Tuesday, April 21, and close at midday on Monday, May 11.

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