BY Erika Allen and Tom Hayes

WELLINGTON Shire is among 10 Victorian councils, including four in Gippsland, whose ward boundaries will be altered for the 2024 council elections after a review by the Victorian Electoral Commission (VEC).

It will have an impact on nine per cent of the shire’s voters: 1370 from the current Central Ward and 2592 from the Northern Ward will vote within a modified Coastal Ward in October this year.

Wellington’s incoming nine councillors will still be divided into three wards (Northern, Central and Coastal), with three councillors assigned per ward. This structure was adopted in 2015 when the VEC conducted the last electoral review.

However, in February 2023, the VEC advised that Wellington was projected to have an imbalanced councillor-to-voter ratio in at least one ward by the time of October’s general election.

Currently, there are an estimated 43,875 voters in Wellington Shire, with an approximate ratio of 4875 voters per councillor. However, the VEC forecast that by October 2024, the voter-to-councillor ratios of Central and Northern wards would be outside of a +10 per cent deviation (greater than 5300 voters per councillor), and the voter-to-councillor ratio of Coastal Ward is forecast to be outside of a -10 per cent deviation (less than 4400 voters per councillor).

Under the Local Government Act 2020, the number of voters per councillor in a ward should not vary by more than 10 per cent from the average number of voters per councillor for all of the wards.

In April 2023, the Minister for Local Government, Melissa Horne, asked the VEC to conduct ward boundary reviews. The review aimed to ensure fair voter representation across the Shire’s diverse communities.

The VEC released its preliminary report in February this year, proposing changes to the boundaries of all three Wellington Shire wards.

To balance out the voter-to-councillor ratios, the VEC proposed increasing the size of the Coastal Ward by extending its northern boundary north up to the La Trobe River (north of Longford), and then to the Thomson River and the Traralgon-Maffra Road (north of Rosedale).

In a submission to the Victorian Government’s Ward Boundary Review Panel in March, Wellington Shire Council’s Chief Executive, David Morcom shared that a drawback of the proposed change was that the model would divide towns and voters from their “communities of interest” – where voters work, shop, send kids to school and spend much of their time.

Specifically, Council raised concerns that moving Denison and Nambrok from the Northern Ward into the Coastal Ward would separate voters from “communities of interest” such as Heyfield and Maffra, which are (and would remain) Northern Ward towns.

Mr Morcom said, “the Commission needs to be aware that rural farming communities like Nambrok and Denison (part of the Northern Ward) use adjacent towns (under 10kms) like Heyfield and Maffra for shopping, health services, schools and so on. To effectively force these communities into the Coastal Ward, where their ward councillor is now likely to be over 80kms away in Yarram, is in contrast to a ‘community of interest’.”

While the VEC acknowledged in its final report that the ward boundary adjustments in these areas were not ideal, it also said they were largely unavoidable.

Similarly, the Council submission noted that Longford is also effectively part of the Sale community and that the model placed Longford in a different ward to its community of interest.

In with the new: Wellington Shire’s Coastal Ward had its northern boundary extended to include Rosedale, Longford, Nambrok and Denison.
Out with the old: Wellington Shire’s current ward boundary map will be updated for the 2024 Wellington Shire Council election this coming October. Images: VEC

The VEC wrote in the final report that, “The inclusion of Longford was felt to be the most logical option as it is the town closest to the southern coastal communities not already located in Coastal Ward”.

Also, the VEC said Longford was a logical option to move because retaining Wurruk in the Central Ward is preferred due to its proximity and strong community ties with Sale.

Despite the concerns raised by Council, the VEC has made no changes to the preliminary model. The state government announced last Wednesday (May 29) that the VEC’s final reports and recommendations have been accepted.

As such, Nambrok, Denison, Rosedale and Longford will become part of the Coastal Ward. This list is not exhaustive but reflects some of the larger towns that the changes will affect.

Minister Horne thanked the VEC for ensuring “communities have fair and equitable representation from their local councils”.

The Gippsland Times were referred to a media release after reaching out to Council for comment.

Council said it acknowledges the efforts made by the VEC to balance the complexities involved in redefining boundaries to allow for equal voter numbers across wards.

Council also recognised the challenges a municipality like Wellington poses. It wrote that one of the challenges in balancing voter numbers across Wellington Shire’s wards is the high number of non-resident ratepayers between The Honeysuckles and Paradise Beach. Recent changes to council-based voting entitlements under the Local Government Act 2020 mean that there is an increased level of uncertainty about how many eligible ratepayers will choose to enrol in this area.

Wellington Shire Mayor, Ian Bye said, “We understand the difficult task the Victorian Electoral Commission faced in reflecting our diverse communities of interest within the new boundaries. While we had concerns about specific changes, we appreciate the Commission’s efforts to achieve the best possible outcome under the current legislative framework.”

Among the other nine councils that will have their ward boundaries changed are three Gippsland shires – the Baw Baw, South Gippsland and Bass Coast.

Latrobe City Council will also have a new electoral structure at the council elections in October under changes confirmed earlier this year.

In its current state, Latrobe City is divided into four wards: West, Central, East, and South, comprising nine councillors. At the next elections in October, there will be nine wards, one per councillor.

The smallest current geographical ward – the West Ward – will be divided into two wards: Moe and Newborough. The Central Ward will also be split in two, becoming the Yallourn and Morwell River Wards. The South Ward will remain the same but will be renamed the Budgeree Ward.

The East Ward will be split into four: the Tyers Ward (submitted as an alternative name for Wades Creek Ward), the Boola Boola Ward, the Loy Yang Ward (submitted as an alternative name for Sheepwash Creek Ward), and the Jeeralang Ward (submitted as an alternative name for Traralgon Creek Ward).

It is assumed that each of the nine current councillors will aim to represent one of the wards at the next election. The next Latrobe City Council election will be in October this year. More information will become available closer to that date.

Incoming: Latrobe City Council will have nine wards instead of four come October this year.
Current: Latrobe city currently has four wards, the East Ward with four councillors, the Central Ward with two, the South Ward with one, and the West Ward with two.

For more information on the new ward boundaries, residents are encouraged to visit the Victorian Electoral Commission’s website.