Fragile referendum support holds amid more barbs

By Julian Bajkowski

Independent power broker Tony Windsor has expressed confidence that a referendum on financial recognition of local government in the Australian Constitution on 14th September can succeed, despite Prime Minister Julia Gillard announcing vote without a form of words for the question.

Mr Windsor told Government News that a ‘yes’ vote was “achievable” and that he expected the form of words in the question to be “fairly straight forward.”

The absence of the referendum question’s wording has been seized upon by Opposition Local Government spokesman Senator Barnaby Joyce who is seeking to move from the upper house to the lower house by standing in against Mr Windsor in the electorate of New England.

Mr Windsor said that it was typical of Senator Joyce to criticise a move that he had already supported and that he was “quite happy to let him make a fool of himself.”

“I don’t think people are fools,” Mr Windsor said. “It will be difficult to mount an argument that this is a threat to the states.”

At a press conference on Thursday in Sydney Senator Joyce said that he first heard the referendum was proceeding while he was in bed listening to the news.

“Apparently the government wants a bipartisan view, I suppose that’s why I heard it on the news rather than form them directly,” Senator Joyce said.

“I support financial recognition of local government, I have said that from the start. To the best of my knowledge we are not aware of any states that have come out and backed this,” Senator Joyce said.

State support can clearly be subject to interpretation and change. In March Government News revealed the contents of a leaked letter from Queensland Premier Campbell Newman to the Prime Minister backing the ‘yes’ case.

“It is the Queensland Government’s view that constitutional recognition that does not diminish the State’s primary constitutional responsibility for local government is appropriate given the breadth of interaction over recent decades between the Commonwealth and councils, and the legal uncertainty about funding that has arisen from the decisions of the High Court in the Pape and Williams cases in recent years,” Mr Newman’s letter said.

Reports sourced to AAP on Thursday said that the Queensland Premier and former Lord Mayor of Brisbane now held concerns that the wording of the Constitutional amendment could allow extra powers to bypass state governments.

If the apparent silence of the states is a harbinger of doom for Senator Joyce, Australian Local Government Association president Felicity-ann Lewis is seeing the upside.

“None of them have come out and said that they won’t be supporting it,” Mayor Lewis told Government News.

“It’s obvious that it [the funding system] is broken and we need to do something as a nation to fix it,” she said.

Mayor Lewis also offered some insight into what stage the so far wording elusive wording of a referendum question might be at.

“I’ve been with the PM … she is looking to find words that will actually acknowledge that the federal government actually has a relationship with local government through funding programs and to remedy any sense that that may not be able to be done,” Mayor Lewis said.

“My understanding is that they are going to present the words in the next day or so. The Opposition will be able to have a look at the words prior to any legislation going into the Parliament next week.”

Local government across Australia have pledged a publicity and education warchest of around $10 million to try and sway voters – a figure they hope will be matched by the federal government

For his part, Senator Joyce is still maintaining some hope of success in between accusations of government incompetence and grim warnings of failure.

“If this falls on its face, this thing gets parked and I don’t want that to happen,” Senator Joyce said.

“I support the idea, I’ll be voting for the referendum … [but] where is their form of words, what are we actually voting for?”

“This is why people don’t like politicians, why they get so cynical,” Senator Joyce said.


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