By Julian Bajkowski
Councils across Australia will soon be forced to explain to ratepayers how much of their money was spent pushing the ‘Yes’ case for the proposed referendum on financial recognition for local government in the Constitution after the poll officially bit the dust on Sunday.
The announcement of a 7th September election date by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd means that the latest hard-fought battle to put the question of formal recognition of local government before voters falls outside legislated dates and won’t proceed.
The Australian Local Government Association (ALGA) had pledged a publicity war chest of around $10 million to campaign on the case for change, an amount the Labor government had indicated that it would match.
The amount of money spent by councils on either advertising or publicity material is still unclear as many local governments started quietly removing campaign banners from their premises on Monday.
The dumping of the referendum in favour of a poll date just one week earlier than previously indicated by former Prime Minister Julia Gillard could prove a blessing in disguise for the advocates of change, especially after an internal revolt within the Coalition effectively terminated bi-partisan support.
While the federal Opposition’s Local Government spokesman, Senator Barnaby Joyce officially maintained the fig leaf of Coalition commitment to the ‘Yes’ case for the referendum, Opposition leader Tony Abbott told electors to vote ‘No’ if they did not understand what it was all about – which is very different to explaining why the Coalition was supporting it.
Prominent Liberals including former Howard government Ministers Nick Minchin and Peter Reith also campaigned hard against the case for recognition labelling it a dangerous power grab that would take away power from the states.
There was also a degree of trepidation in some councils that the process of educating the public about why a referendum was needed at all had been left far too late to be convincing.
Even this year the formal committee process started laying bare deep apprehensions even within ALGA.
In January Federal parliamentarians roasted their local government colleagues over a perceived attempt to try and postpone the referendum at a public hearing of the Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition of Local Government in Sydney.
Evidence given to the Committee prompted retiring Member for New England and key independent Tony Windsor to repeatedly question ALGA’s handling of the big push for the poll – only to then appear to back away – and then support it again.
On Monday the crocodile tears flowed on cue.
"We are extremely disappointed to learn that Prime Minister Rudd has selected an election date which means the Referendum on recognising local government in the Constitution cannot be held,” ALGA president Felicity-ann Lewis said.
"With 95 per cent of Federal MPs and Senators voting in favour of this Referendum, and the overwhelming majority of Mayors also in support, there will be a lot of disappointment across Australia at this decision.
But not quite as disappointed had the poll had failed for a third time, a move that probably would have banished the idea of Constitutional recognition for local government for half a century.
Barnaby Joyce was less generous.
“Alas, today we find that the whole ceremony was a sham. There won't even be a referendum,” the Queensland Senator (who will soon be forced to support NSW in the Rugby League) said.
Queensland councils said they were “angry and disappointed at Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's decision not to honour the Federal Parliament's commitment to hold a referendum to change the Constitution to protect vital federal funding for community infrastructure.”
Local Government Association of Queensland President Margaret de Wit said the referendum had the overwhelming support of the Parliament yet Mr Rudd had chosen not to proceed.
It did not, however, appear to have the ongoing backing of Premier Campbell Newman at crunch time despite him previously writing the former Prime Minister Gillard expressing his support in a letter that was subsequently leaked to Government News.
“Opinion polls showed that Queenslanders were ready to support this referendum in big numbers so they are also entitled to feel disappointed by this act of political expediency,” Ms de Wit said.
“Timing was not an issue. Mr Rudd could have gone ahead with this referendum if he wanted to.”
The statement from Queensland that “timing was not an issue” is intriguing one given notes in the ALGA’s statement.
“Advice from Government is that the earliest a referendum can be held in conjunction with a federal election is 14 September,” ALGA’s statement said. “The advice outlines that a referendum must be submitted to the electors within two months of the beginning of voting and no later than six months.”
Assuming that local governments can repair necessary Coalition support for recognition – a prospect arguably more difficult if the Coalition win government – there is still a slim possibility a double referendum could be held outside the normal election cycle to reduce the so-called toxicity of politics.
However the real wildcard in the equation is if and when another High Court challenge on direct federal funding for local governments could land and badly disrupt well established funding flows.
A serious block to money for communities who remain otherwise disinterested or apathetic about why the referendum proposal came about in the first place might just spur electors into caring that little bit more.
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