By Julian Bajkowski
Councils and local governments across Australia are digging in for a battle to try and keep $150 million of federal infrastructure funding promised under the Regional Development Australia Fund (RDAF) after the Coalition refused to guarantee the money if it wins government.
The Australian Local Government Association (ALGA) on Friday upped the ante in its bid to secure the money promised under Labor, calling on whoever wins the election to stick to the commitment.
The president of ALGA, Felicity ann Lewis is pushing for the Coalition to change the timings in its pledge for a new $200 million regional funding program because of fears projects could stall for an entire year in 2014.
“Leader of the Nationals, Warren Truss, has said that a Coalition Government would create a new regional funding program worth $200 million each year for five years,” Ms Lewis said.
“While we support this initiative, we note with concern that this program would not commence until 2015. That timing would create a period of more than a year without significant regional development funding following tomorrow's election if a Coalition Government was to be elected.”
Another sticking point for ALGA is that councils that have not already found ways and signed deals to spend RDAF money could be left empty-handed.
“The Coalition has warned that projects where funding agreements have not already been signed will not proceed,” Mrs Lewis said.
In the event there is a change of government, councils and the ALGA are likely to have to deal with a new realpolitik that leans more heavily towards boosting state government controls over local governments rather than allowing direct funding flows from Canberra for specific projects.
Councils are already pushing Canberra to be compensated for the money they spent promoting the referendum ‘yes’ case only to have the poll dumped.
The issue of state’s rights over funding became a point of sharp division within the Coalition during the now aborted local government referendum campaign after the powerful Right faction of the Liberals succeeded in forcing Tony Abbott to talk down the yes case.
Despite having pledged bipartisan support for the ‘yes’ case earlier, Mr Abbott said later that people should vote ‘no’ if they did not understand what they were voting for, a statement that contradicted strong support for change by the Coalition’s shadow local government minister, Senator Barnaby Joyce.
A big fear for many Liberals with strong state branch backing, especially in South Australia and Tasmania, is that a Constitutional change to allow direct federal funding of council projects would ultimately erode the role and power of state governments who could be bypassed in funding flows.
Ironically a large part of the impetus for the referendum was created by a High Court decision handed down in the Williams case which successfully challenged the Constitutional lawfulness of Canberra’s direct funding of John Howard’s controversial school chaplaincy program.
Whoever wins government at the election may not have to wait long for another landmark case before the High Court over funding flows.
Ron Williams, the successful plaintiff in the case of Williams vs Commonwealth has launched another challenge that if successful could force the issue to be put back to the people if he is successful.
“[The] After Williams Colloquium will be a forum for scholarly analysis of the decision, its immediate aftermath, and the future of legislative and executive power in Australia,” the event’s website says.
“In addition, the colloquium will deal with the church and state and religious freedom implications of Williams, especially in the context of publicly-funded school chaplains. An invitation is made for contributions on all aspects of the decision.”
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