The battle for Auburn: foul play and donkey votes
With 87 candidates chasing after 10 council seats, Mohamed Taha investigates the intense local election battle for Auburn City Council.
Voter frustration was rife last weekend in Auburn, as local government elections took place amidst intense political rivalry between the numerous candidates.
With 87 candidates competing for 10 council seats, Auburn City Council had the second highest number of nominations in the state.
“It’s such a vibrant area and the broad diversity of cultural groups means a lot of people want to represent their cultural communities,” Labor Councillor Hicham Zreika said.
John Wang, polling place manager at St. Stevens Anglican Church Hall in Lidcombe, agreed.
“Each one [cultural group] are pushing their agenda,” said Wang.
Voters were not so impressed.
“All this politics is bullshit,” one voter barked as he reluctantly walked towards the polling booth.
Auburn City was outnumbered only by City of Campbelltown, where 102 candidates were vying for 15 seats according to the NSW Electoral Commission.
Greens candidate Malikeh Michels is cynical of the nominee influx for Auburn City Council.
“Many of the people running are in the real estate or property industry and have ulterior motives to try and allow more high rise building in Auburn so their associates can make money,” she said.
“We had four property developers and real estate agents on the last Council and we will probably have more this time.”
Her worries are not unfounded. Auburn councillors have a past riddled with controversy.
Earlier this year, the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) found that Councillor Jack Au, also a building inspector, was given $4500 as a “reward” by a developer trying to get a karaoke bar through council in 2009.
For Malikeh Michels, this is a slow and tedious struggle.
“I have spent much of the past eight years successfully fighting the councillors who put these motions up at Council,” she said.
“We are there to serve the interest of our community first and not our own interests.”
One party that was vocal in opposition towards development applications is the Residents Action Group for Auburn Area (RAGAA), which have a detailed list of what is deemed “Approved contentious developments” on its website.
Another such party is the Battler group, which campaigns for a reform of the current ward system.
“We believe that there should be a smaller ward system,” said Battler candidate Tony Oldfield.
“The current system allows complete lack of accountability and it allows councillors to be very distant from the residents they’re supposed to represent.”
Auburn City Council currently comprises the suburbs of Auburn, Berala, Lidcombe, Newington, Regents Park, Rookwood, Silverwater, Sydney Olympic Park, Wenworth Park and Homebush Bay.
It is one of the most culturally diverse local government areas in Australia and is often a first place of settlement for many newly arrived refugees and migrants.
At the time of the 2006 census, 53 per cent of residents in Auburn were born overseas, representing 124 different countries and speaking more than 67 languages.
Independent candidate Salim Mehajer said that there is a distinct gap between residents and councillors.
“Many people felt their concerns were not being heard and that most people leading or running for council didn’t know what they were doing or weren’t doing it properly,” Mehajar said.
But Mehajer recognised that there is a greater issue among voters in the Auburn electorate.
“It’s time people stopped doing the donkey vote because they don’t see any difference between candidates,” he said.
“It’s time people stopped blindly voting for parties who don’t care about what the people want.”
Although the penalty for not voting stands at $55, some voters opt for what is commonly known as a ‘donkey vote’ – the submission of a blank ballot paper.
Historically, voters in the NSW electorate of Reid, which covers Auburn, have recorded a very high rate of informal voting – more than 11 per cent in 2001 and 2004 and 7 per cent in 2007.
The exact reasons why are unknown but voters feel disengaged and disillusioned.
A self-proclaimed ‘donkey voter’, who wished to remain anonymous, said: “I honestly don’t care who gets voted in, I just do it to avoid paying the fine.”
Some voters, such as Russian migrant Natalie Demidov, found the voting process baffling.
“I don’t understand how it works, it was guesswork for me. Maybe my vote was illegal,” the 69-year-old said.
Ken Curran, the polling place manager at Lidcombe Public School, raised the same concern.
“It’s frustrating how the voting process is set up,” said Curren, who has over 40 years of experience at the polls.
“It disenfranchises people from voting, especially those from [different] cultural backgrounds.”
Others voters like 45-year-old mother Samantha made informed decisions when voting.
“The Greens, because I believe on the local level their politics is important,” said Samantha.
“Labor is for the working-class so I choose them,” said Mick Alameddine, a 38-year-old panel beater.
Eddie Parke, a 23-year-old student, chose the Liberal Party candidates.
“The Libs [Liberal party] have better policies for infrastructure and roads,” he said.
The final results are expected at the end of this week.
Police officers patrolled the polling booths of Auburn City on Election Day last weekend, a testament to the tensions that surrounded the heated local government elections.
Two weeks before elections, Shulin Chen, wife of Independent Ward Two candidate Dennis Yu, was arrested and charged with common assault, allegedly in relation to a scuffle at a pre-polling booth in Lidcombe.
Mr Yu vehemently denied that his wife made any physical contact at all and that she was simply trying to prevent another candidate from filming his supporters.
The Auburn Review reported that there were also allegations of bullying and intimidation by some groups, which included accusations that posters put up by supporters of the Residents Action Group for Auburn Area (RAGAA) had been removed.
Many informal claims and counterclaims from supporters of parties were made to polling managers in the lead up to last weekend’s elections, but the NSW Electoral Commission received no official complaints.