Feedback flies into constitutional committee

By Julian Bajkowski and Paul Hemsley

Local governments keen to persuade a parliamentary committee of the merits of holding a referendum on Constitutional recognition of local government alongside the 2013 federal election have set at a cracking pace, with more than 33 documents lodged as the deadline for submissions looms.

The slew of input comes as the Joint Standing Committee on the Constitutional Recognition of Local Government revealed it will hold its first public hearing on 16th January 2013 at New South Wales Parliament House, a date sits square in the middle of school holidays.

While the first public hearing date is earlier than many expected, the committee has nominated the due date for submissions to be around one month later on 15th February 2013, giving respondents a little more breathing room to put their arguments forward.

This public hearing is expected to provide state and territory local government associations, as well as state and territory governments, a platform to put their views to the Committee about the proposed wording for the constitutional amendment.

In the event the government opts to put Constitutional recognition of local government to the people at the election, the wording of an amendment will be crucial for the changes to be both convincing and effective.

The Australian Local Government Association’s (ALGA) proposed wording is “Parliament may grant financial assistance to any state or local government body formed by or under a law of a state or territory on such terms and conditions as the Parliament sees fit”.

The Committee was established in November 2012 following a concerted push from ALGA to amend Section 96 of the Australian Constitution to recognise local government to “protect direct federal funding for community services and infrastructure”.

ALGA’s long-running agenda to galvanise political support from the federal government was renewed upon the election of Felicity-ann Lewis as president of the peak body in mid-November 2012.

Only one local government association has been made public, that being the Local Government Association of Tasmania (LGAT).

The LGAT said in its submission that local government generates around 80 per cent of its own revenue but funding from the federal government remains a “critical source” of income for councils. “Particularly for programs and service in regional and remote communities,” the LGAT submission said.

While the urgency to obtain security of funding is a pressing issue, some councils are still deeply conscious of the need to foster widespread public education and support for their efforts.

“Council is very aware that Australian voters are extremely conservative and have rejected the inclusion of local government in the Constitution twice before, in 1974 and 1988. In 1974 this included changes to section 96 to allow direct funding and in 1988 as a more general statement that local government should exist,” a submission from Cootamundra Shire Council in NSW said.

“Council considers it unfortunate that those who oppose any referendum adopt the ‘if you don’t know vote no’ attitude and this position has won the day in both previous attempts at constitutional recognition of local government.”

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