By Julian Bajkowski
The final report of the Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition of Local Government has recommended that a referendum be put to electors at the 14th September 2013 federal election despite the relatively short lead-time, but support within the Coalition could be fracturing along Liberal and National party lines.
After previously reserving their position in an interim report, Liberal members of the committee have again issued a dissenting report that poured cold water on the referendum’s chances of success and attacked the government for delays and inaction in getting the process moving ahead of the forthcoming poll.
“Coalition members of the Committee recommend that a referendum on the issue of financial recognition of local government only be held after the preconditions posed by the Expert Panel and those previously promoted by ALGA, have been met,” the dissenting Liberals report from Senator David Bushby, Senator David Fawcett and MP Steve Irons said.
However Nationals MP Mark Coulton MP and Queensland Liberal National Party MP Jane Prentice did not sign-off on the dissenting report.
Instead they opted to publish “additional comments” that recommended that Local Government Minister Simon “take immediate and urgent action” to remedy the still unclear position of the states and commit to funding an education campaign for electors on why a referendum is required and the problem it seeks to resolve.
“As of 6 March it is lamentable that the Minister for Regional Australia, RegionalDevelopment and Local Government, the Hon Simon Crean MP, still cannot confirm the views of State support for a referendum,” Mr Coulton and Ms Prentice wrote.
A key finding of an expert providing evidence to the committee was that for the referendum to succeed, the states would have to ‘play dead’ as a minimum level of support and effectively not mount an opposition campaign to the proposed Constitutional change.
So far the states’ position is far from uniform.
While Western Australian government is known to oppose the direct funding amendment to the Constitution, Campbell Newman’s Queensland’s government is known to support it.
And despite the WA state government’s position, the Western Australian Local Government Association has continued to support Constitutional recognition to allow direct funding.
The committee also heard that Queensland Premier Campbell Newman wrote to his state peers urging support for Constitutional tweak – however a copy of the letter is yet to surface publicly.
Meanwhile dissenters’ report has also prompted federal Opposition Spokesman on Local Government, Senator Barbaby Joyce, to again weigh-in to help clarify the Coalition’s official position and keep it on message. Senator Joyce provided Government News a brief history lesson.
“[John] Howard supported financial recognition of local government; [Malcolm] Turnbull supports financial recognition of local government; [Tony] Abbott supports financial recognition of local government; I have exactly the same position as they do I support financial recognition of local government,” Senator Joyce said.
However he again cautioned that time was running out for the government to get started on educating voters on why change was needed and repeated previous warnings that a “half attempt” would result in electoral rejection.
“If they are going to have a referendum on the 14th of September, they have got an awful lot of work to do and if they leave it much later, there will not be a chance. I’m serious about that, leave it another month or so and [you can] forget it,” Senator Joyce said.
Senator Joyce also effectively ruled out the prospect of a referendum getting up in the event of an early poll before pouring petrol on real or perceived leadership tensions in the government.
“If Mr Rudd does make a return to the leader of the Labor Party, the election will be on straight away and we won’t have the proper time to get this issue up,” Senator Joyce said. “I bet you Mr Crean is not going to tell you what the intentions are of Mr Rudd.”
“Most people haven’t got a clue what financial recognition of local government means, therefore a referendum at this point [an early election] would fail,” Senator Joyce said.
The Australian Local Government Association hailed the committee’s recommendation as “a win for local government.”
“ALGA has consistently argued that recognition in the Constitution is needed to protect important funding for local projects and provide councils with the certainty that funding for local projects can continue without claims of constitutional invalidity," ALGA President Felicity-ann Lewis said.
"The Joint Select Committee's key finding that a referendum should be held in September vindicates ALGA's long-held position,” Ms Lewis said.
Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon similarly applauded the committee recommendation, but shared Senator Joyce’s sense of urgency to get the machinery of government moving.
“Two expert committees have now found in favour of a referendum. The Labor government must move quickly to pass legislation between March and July facilitating the referendum and allowing time to build strong community and cross party support,” Senator Rhiannon said.
“If the government drags the chain it will rob the campaign of time to educate the community about the importance of constitutional reform to allow the federal government to fund local councils.
“This referendum should receive active support from all political parties, state governments and local councils across the nation.
Senator Rhiannon said that the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Act 1984 set out the referendum process.
“This includes passing a bill setting out the proposed alteration to the Constitution, establishing ‘yes’ and ‘no’ committees of MPs to prepare a case supporting their position and the Government-General issuing writs,” Senator Rhiannon said.
Further updates to follow.