Councils seek referendum refunds from Canberra

By Julian Bajkowski

Councils across Australia are seeking a refund from Canberra for more than $3 million in ratepayers money they spent to promote the ‘yes’ case for a referendum on the Constitutional recognition of local government that was scrapped alongside the announcement of a new federal poll date.

The Australian Local Government Association (ALGA) has said that it now intends to work “with the incoming government to determine whether local government is reimbursed for its expenditure on the campaign.”

The estimated $3 million spent by councils comes on top of another $2.5 million spent by the Department of Regional Australia, Local Government, the Arts and Sport that was given a total of $11.6 million to promote the referendum and conduct a civics education campaign.

Last week’s Pre-Election Economic and Fiscal Outlook (PEFO) from Treasury revealed that $9.5 million of the $11.6 million has been put back into the Commonwealth’s coffers after the vote was put on the back-burner for the foreseeable future.

Some of the money spent by councils appears to have somewhat questionably gone towards full page advertisements for the ‘yes’ case that ran in publications   despite prominent editorial coverage of referendum being called off running in the same edition. [Government News did not receive money for these advertisements].

However ALGA argued on Friday that it would not be fair for it to absorb costs already outlaid by councils in relation to the referendum because election timing was out of its hands.

“Given that the decision to drop the 2013 referendum was made without consultation with local government and for reasons which were beyond local government's control, ALGA believes it would be inequitable if councils had to bear the costs of the associated campaign,” the association said in its weekly bulletin to members.

The lead-up to the now shelved referendum was fraught with difficulties both before and after legislation was passed by the then Gillard government to lock-in the ultimately redundant date of September 14th.

Tensions between local government leaders and federal parliamentarians came into public view in February when opinions differed as top whether or not the 2013 poll was the best date given the toxicity of political debate.

During Parliamentary committee hearing in Sydney when independent MP Tony Windsor and Western Sydney Labor MP Michelle Rowland both cautioned state local government association leaders that toxicity levels were unlikely to diminish and warned them not to take bipartisan support for granted.

That advice now seems prescient given that split in the right of the Liberal Party resulted in some members publicly questioning their party’s formal position and ultimately led to Opposition leader Tony Abbott telling constituents to vote ‘no’ if they did not understand what the referendum was about – a move regarded by many as a de-facto withdrawal of support forced by the need to placate internal state powerbrokers within the Coalition.


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