Bureaucrats roasted over referendum education progress

By Julian Bajkowski

The Department of Regional Australia, Local Government, Arts and Sports has come under fire from the Opposition during Senate Estimates over the rate of progress in its efforts to mount a civics campaign to inform Australians about the looming referendum on whether or not to give financial recognition to local government in the Constitution.

Shadow Local Government Minister Barnaby Joyce has claimed that evidence provided in Senate Estimates on Thursday afternoon showed that even though $10 million has been allocated for a public awareness campaign “the Government has no idea when this will begin.”

“Department of Regional Australia, Local Government, Arts and Sports secretary Glenys Beauchamp admitted in the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Senate Estimates that the 17 staff allocated for the taskforce, costing $1.5 million over two years, were still being trained and market research was still being carried out,” Senator Joyce said in a statement.

“Here we are two minutes to midnight before the vote on September 14, merely months away. What evidence is there that this campaign is running?” Senator Joyce said.

“It is all very well to say that mayors and councillors have an understanding of this referendum, but we must get Mr and Mrs Smith on board as well. How do we do this between now and the election when the election is sucking up all the oxygen?”

Ms Beauchamp told the Estimates Committee that she was confident that her department had the “necessary arrangements in place” but declined to go through the “timeline” of when and what was happening.

On Wednesday the government introduced legislation into the lower house to make the referendum a reality and said that the Constitutional amendment would “add 17 words to our almost 12,000-word long Constitution”

Specifically, if successful the referendum would alter Section 96 of the Constitution to read:

96  Financial assistance to States and local government bodies

During a period of ten years after the establishment of the Commonwealth and thereafter until the Parliament otherwise provides, the Parliament may grant financial assistance to any State, or to any local government body formed by a law of a State, on such terms and conditions as the Parliament thinks fit.

The government said that the amendment is based on the wording suggested by the Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition of Local Government that was led by the Hon James Spigelman AC, QC and later endorsed by the Parliamentary Joint Select Committee.

The case for change has garnered the official support of Labor, the Coalition the Greens and key independents, however it is understood that some Coalition figures remain to be convinced including influential Tasmanian Senator Eric Abetz.

Local government minister Anthony Albanese said in a statement on Wednesday that the change was “small but important” and “reflects the fact that the Commonwealth has partnered with local governments to deliver local roads, sporting fields, libraries, child care and community services.”

“The change will not diminish the role of the States with regard to the administration of local government. Recognition in the Constitution does not alter the fact that local governments are created by and are accountable to State Governments,” Mr Albanese said.

He added that recognising local government in the Constitution would reflect the “longstanding partnership between the Federal and local governments on programs like Roads to Recovery, which has enabled the Commonwealth to work with local councils and communities to upgrade and repair 16,000 road sites across the country.”

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