By Julian Bajkowski
Coalition support for the ‘yes’ case in the referendum on Constitutional recognition for local government has edged one step closer to official collapse after Opposition leader Tony Abbott intensified his attack on the poll process amid growing internal pressure to withdraw bipartisan support.
Speaking at a press conference in Whittlsea, Victoria, Mr Abbott implored voters to reject the proposed Constitutional amendment if they didn’t understand the case being put forward.
“I have enormous reservations about the way the government has done this and I say to the Australian people if you don't understand it, don't vote for it. If you're not fully persuaded, don't vote for it because our constitution is far too important to be trifled with,” Mr Abbott said.
The Opposition’s previously stated official position on the referendum was to support the ‘yes’ case in the referendum, a position that was then underlined by the Coalition giving the government the required numbers for a vote on legislation to enable the referendum to finally clear the Senate.
Whatever the Opposition leader’s position may be, the referendum actually occurring is still ultimately reliant on a suitable federal poll date – which is still to be announced.
Even so, Mr Abbott said that while he thinks that there is certainly “a case for ensuring that existing federal programmes for local government can continue without constitutional doubt” but that “this thing has been done badly and undemocratically.”
“The ‘yes’ camp is getting 40 times the funding that the ‘no’ camp is getting and finally, they gagged the debate through the Senate,” the Opposition leader said.
Ironically, the paucity of funding for the ‘no’ case stems from a formula based on the level of support for the referendum legislation in the House of Representatives where only a token two Opposition MPs crossed the floor.
The final Senate vote last week also finally laid bare acrimonious divisions within the Coalition when the Opposition’s Leader in the Senate, Tasmanian Senator Eric Abetz refused to vote for the legislation and was backed by George Brandis, Michaelia Cash, Mathias Cormann, Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, Mitch Fifield, David Johnston, Michael Ronaldson and Scott Ryan.
Lower house Liberal MP Christopher Pyne has also taken prominent pot shots at the referendum, further undermining official support.
The Opposition’s official spokesman on Local Government, Barnaby Joyce, has so far maintained strong support for the 'yes' case tempered with unrelenting if expected criticism of the government’s handling of the both the process and funding of the 'yes' and 'no' campaigns.
The fracturing point within the Coalition of the referendum issue is along party lines. Hardline conservative Liberals are steadfastly opposed to the idea of officially enshrining another tier of government let alone giving it direct federal funding.
However the Nationals, who primarily represent less populated regional areas generally support the ‘yes’ case and are deeply worried existing funding flows for projects like Roads to Recovery are being jeopardised on the back of two landmark High Court decisions.
The very reason a referendum has been called in the first place is to try and give legal certainty to funding for local government-based projects by tweaking the Constitution to finally write-in councils as legally eligible recipients to head-off further litigation.
The Opposition is also applying direct pressure on the Australian Local Government Association to scuttle the referendum, despite pledging $10 million of councils’ money on top of the Canberra’s $10 million for the ‘yes’ case.
The ABC has reported that Mr Abbot has urged ALGA to rethink its position, a move unlikely to sit well with more than 560 councils and shires gearing up for grass roots ‘vote yes’ publicity campaign.
"If I was the Australian Local Government Association, I would be asking the Government to have, to rethink all of this. Let's face it, twice before, this matter has gone to the people and been rejected. If it's rejected a third time, I think that's probably curtains for this," the ABC reported Mr Abbott as saying.
Both Senator Joyce and the Australian Local Government Association have been contacted for comment which will be added as it arrives.
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