By Julian Bajkowski
Opponents to a change in the Constitution that could give financial recognition to local government through a referendum at the 14th September federal poll have launched their official campaign with an attack by former Howard government minister Peter Reith on the Nationals leader in the Senate,. Barnaby Joyce.
After months of sniping from the sidelines, the so-called ‘No’ camp over the weekend officially hoisted its colours with a series of broadsides and the tagline “No Power Grab” that appears aimed squarely at harnessing discontent over the perceived centralisation of power in Canberra.
“Joyce should read the fine print before advocating a proposal that will mean more power to the federal bureaucracy and potentially significant disadvantage to the people he wants to represent,” Mr Reith says in a piece posted on the group’s website NoPowerGrab.com.au,” Mr Reith writes.
“Until Joyce presents a respected constitutional lawyer who can support his claims, he might be entertaining but that’s about it.
“Worse still, by getting his arguments so totally wrong, he has missed the real dangers lurking in the details of the proposal: dangers to local government raised by independent experts,” Mr Reith said.
The line-up of opponents, the most public to date, features not only industrial relations hard-man Peter Reith but former Howard Finance Minister Nick Minchin and form Keating government Special Minister of State Dr Gary Johns, former councillor and conservative advocate Julian Leeser and Tim Wilson from the Institute of Public Affairs.
Former Howard Foreign Minister Alexander Downer has also weighed in for the ‘No’ side.
“The Local Government Association says all is well with local councils so why on earth do they have to be inserted into the National Constitution. They already exist and they are, by their own account, doing a decent job,” a piece by Mr Downer posted on the No Power Grab website states.
But not everyone aligned to the Coalition is likely to welcome the frank contribution their former ministers.
The conspicuous presence of former Howard government front benchers in the vote ‘No’ camp is a headache for Opposition leader Tony Abbott who has pledged bipartisan support for the Constitutional change.
It has also highlighted differences between hard right factional members of the Liberals, including Tasmanian Senator Eric Abetz and Nationals members in the Coalition who have far more to lose under the removal of direct funding mechanisms. South Australian Senator Cory Bernardi appears to be another dissenter.
Some moderates in the Coalition are understood to be concerned that a win for the ‘No’ campaign followed legal challenge to direct funding by Canberra could leave them with a long-term headache immediately after winning government – and just when quick progress on the ground needs to be seen to be being made.
Supporters of the Constitutional amendment argue the case for change has been made more urgent by two recent High Court of Australia decisions (the Pape and Williams cases) that have raised the spectre of direct funding to local governments being essentially unconstitutional and thus making popular schemes like the multi-billion dollar open to highly vulnerable to a successful legal challenge.
Ironically, it was the Williams case that successfully challenged the funding of John Howard’s controversial school chaplaincy program and has thrown a pall of legal doubt over many other initiatives that are directly funded from Canberra.
However history is not dampening the vigour of opponents to a Constitutional amendment.
“Canberra politicians and bureaucrats are trying to change the Constitution that limits their power using every trick in the book at their disposal,” spokesperson Peter Reith said.
“The Constitution isn’t just any old piece of paper, it’s the document that limits the power of Canberra politicians and bureaucrats and outlines the very structure of our democracy”.
Mr Reith said that Australians “opposed to the local government referendum” had now officially formed and welcomed the support of “any Australian opposed to Canberra’s power grab.”
“If you want local communities to provide services based on local need, not Canberra priorities, you will want to sign up,” he said.“We’re building a broad-based coalition of people, regardless of their political background, to defeat this Canberra power grab. We want organising committee members, activists, donors, anyone prepared to play a part – big or small – to defeat this Canberra power grab”.
But the Australian Local Government Association (ALGA), which has campaigned for change for decades, immediately slammed the new ‘No’ group as “out of touch and out of step.”
The president of ALGA, Felicity-ann Lewis, said the decision on how to vote in the referendum was “for community members and the views of former politicians are immaterial.”
"The Leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott, has given his support to include local government in the Constitution to secure direct, federal funding for local services and infrastructure in communities across the country," Ms Lewis said.
“This referendum has federal multi-partisan support because all parties understand that including local government in the Constitution will simply acknowledge the financial relationship that already exists between the Commonwealth and local government and allow the continuation of direct funding into communities.
"Communities shouldn't be misled by absurd claims by the ill-informed about power grabs. This referendum is about shoring up funding for communities. Without constitutional recognition, direct funding for communities is under threat. Recent High Court challenges, including the Schools Chaplaincy Case, are examples where direct funding has been called into doubt,” Ms Lewis said.
“Voting 'yes' at the referendum this election day is about voting 'yes' for community infrastructure and services.”
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