By Julian Bajkowski
The Australian Local Government Association’s (ALGA) push to secure constitutional recognition has cleared an important political hurdle after the House of Representatives carried a motion last night to establish a 12 member Joint Select Committee to look into the proposal that would need to be put to a referendum.
The bipartisan support for a Joint Committee to look into the proposed constitutional change is an important step in keeping the push for financial autonomy going following the Gillard government’s earlier indication that it was unlikely to put forward another constitutional amendment to formally recognise Indigenous people in the document because of doubts whether it would succeed.
An inherent risk in putting issues up for referenda is that if the move is unsuccessful at a popular vote, the changes usually fall by the political wayside for at least a decade or more until sufficient popular momentum is regained to revisit the issue.
In 1999 a bid to change the constitution to give Australia a president as its formal head of state – led by the Australian Republican Movement’s Malcolm Turnbull – was defeated by a margin of 10 per cent despite a slew of polling that indicated that it would be successful.
Since then the loss has served as a poignant reminder of the high stakes at play when putting constitutional issues to a popular vote making incumbent governments and legislators increasing wary of electoral intolerance for issues regarded as potentially tangential.
The Federal Opposition’s backing for both the committee and the referendum means the Parliamentary review is set to progress at speed. According to the motion passed last night, the committee will “present a preliminary report no later than December 2012 if possible, and a final report no later than February 2013.”
Coalition Local Government spokesman Barnaby Joyce is not holding back.
Senator Joyce told Government News that although the referendum had his and the federal Coalition’s backing, there was still some way to go in winning sufficient public and political support.
“I support financial recognition of local government,” Senator Joyce said, adding he was not prepared to play “ducks and drakes” on the issue.
“I’m also fully aware that if we don’t have the vast majority of people on board in the parliament and the public you are just wasting your money on a referendum,” Senator Joyce said.
“I’ll be completely frank, it ends up going nowhere unless we get greater support because if you go to a referendum and you’ve got dissent it’s just not going to fly, he said.”
However Senator Joyce said that local government still had “has a huge role to play lobbying as hard as they can” so that federal members of parliament were sufficiently convinced “to get this up".
“What I’ve found out in the past is that they come and lobby me, that’s great for my ego but it’s not much use to them because they’ve already got me,” Senator Joyce said.
“They’ve got to try and lobby the people that they don’t have. Obviously there are strong concerns about it in Victoria and Western Australia in particular,” he said.
Senator Joyce said that people need to understand that the proposed referendum and committee were not “about replacing state governments with local governments or taking away power from state governments to deal with local governments".
“It’s about the capacity of federal governments to send money to local governments as they do in such things like Roads to Recovery which has all been brought into question by reason of such things like the Pape case and the Willams case,” Senator Joyce said.
The Williams case centred around the legality of Canberra to directly funding a school chaplaincy program in schools, peak groups including ALGA are worried that the outcome and precedents could limit “the Commonwealth’s power to provide direct federal funding in areas and to organisations.”
Despite securing Coalition support in Canberra, Senator Joyce was far less confident that the issue of local government recognition in the constitution has yet resonated with the electorate.
He said that the wider electorate was “Just not switched onto it".
“It just doesn’t quite cut it with the X-factor,” Senator Joyce said.
The Coalition has also poured cold water on the prospect of separating a referenda from Federal election cycles, an idea that has been debated on discussion shows like the ABC’s Q&A as a way to better engage voters on issues.
Senator Joyce said that there was a high cost associated with running referenda outside the regular electoral cycle.
“I’m of the view that if [the electorate is] going to the ballot box, get them to do a few jobs,” Senator Joyce said.
“In America they vote for everything from the dog catcher to the President, so surely we can get a referendum and a vote away at the same ballot box.”
Councils are also not letting the Gillard government forget its promise to put their financial independence to a vote, despite dumping a similar undertaking for the constitutional recognition of indigenous Australians.
"Prime Minister Julia Gillard gave an undertaking when coming to office in 2010 to hold referendums by the end of 2013 on both constitutional recognition of indigenous Australians and constitutional recognition of local government,” ALGA president Felicity-ann Lewis said.
“Despite the Government's recent decision to defer a referendum on indigenous recognition, ALGA will continue to work with the Commonwealth on putting in place the conditions for a successful local government referendum, which will ensure that important federal funding for local communities can continue," Mayor Lewis said.
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