Fed committee gives green light to referendum

By Julian Bajkowski

The parliamentary committee tasked with evaluating the merits of holding a referendum on amending the Constitution to give financial recognition to local government has recommended that a poll be held at the forthcoming federal election this year.

Published today, the ‘yes’ recommendation from the Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition of Local Government comes despite an attempt by the Australian Local Government Association to delay a vote for fear the proposal would be rejected by the electorate.

The peak group last week argued before the committee that there was not enough time to educate and convince voters of the benefits of voting for change, a shift in its previous position from arguing for the urgent need for a referendum – a manoeuvre that visibly angered committee members including chair Michelle Rowland and key independent Tony Windsor.

However the last minute change in position from ALGA appears to have failed to persuade the committee to back away from an imminent referendum, thus creating the bizarre situation where the ultimate potential beneficiaries and key backers of a vote are now effectively opposing a poll being held – while their political sponsors are left to argue the case.

A statement from the committee said that, if passed, the Constitutional amendment would guarantee the ability of the Commonwealth Government “to continue to directly fund essential community infrastructure through programs such as Roads to Recovery for building and upgrading regional roads.”

“This Australia Day weekend, people around the country will be attending barbecues in public parks, enjoying concerts, fireworks and citizenship ceremonies, all organised by local government,’ Ms Rowland said.

“The services now provided by local government far exceed their functions in the past and local communities rely on this level of service being maintained. Amending the Constitution to provide certainty for direct funding will ensure these services can continue.”

Platitudes aside, the committee’s position now places substantial pressure on ALGA – which is the peak body for state local government associations – to change its position back to supporting a referendum or risk a blow to its credibility in Canberra.

So far the push for a referendum at the next federal election has managed to garner strong bipartisan support from Labor and the Coalition after it was put forward by the independents in the aftermath of a hung parliament.

Less clear is whether bipartisan support can or will extend to either a referendum at a later election or a poll held outside of the regular election cycle.

Coalition local government spokesman Senator Barnaby Joyce has previously indicated he believed that cost or running referenda outside the normal electoral cycle was too high to justify a separate poll.

The Australian Electoral Commission has estimated that it would cost $121 million to run a referendum separately to an election, a figure that only takes into account the costs to that agency.

Aside from recommending that a referendum on financial recognition go ahead, the Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition of Local Government has also recommended that negotiations are immediately commenced “to secure the support of state and territory governments for the referendum.”

Not all states, particularly Western Australia, are supportive of the move because it would allow Canberra to bypass state governments when allocating money to specific projects.

A number of states are also waiting to see the specific wording of any Constitutional amendment before formally indicating what their position will be.

In its statement today, the committee  said it had “endorsed the form of words proposed by the Expert Panel on  Constitutional Recognition of Local Government to form the basis for the Australian Government negotiating state and territory support.”

A national civics education campaign, a referendum panel of experts and key public figures to oversee campaigning and funding for groups to participate in campaigns to ensure the success of the referendum has also been recommended by the committee.

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