By Julian Bajkowski
Bitter factional infighting has torn apart public Coalition support for a Constitutional change that would guarantee federal funds can flow directly to more than 500 local governments after key hard-right elements publicly railed against the case for a ‘yes’ vote in a torrid Senate debate.
After more than a year of publicly backing the case for change, Liberals including Shadow Attorney General George Brandis, have openly attacked the proposal to recognise local government in the Constitution as tensions between the Liberals and Nationals rise.
The smouldering friction between the two Coalition parties ignited in the Senate on Wednesday afternoon putting a serious question mark over whether formal Opposition support for the ‘yes’ case in forthcoming referendum remains intact.
Although the referendum legislation is likely to clear the Senate on numbers, increasingly prominent attacks by some federal Liberals could terminally undermine public support for change.
It has been reported that Opposition leader Tony Abbott was forced to rebuff a last minute bid by incensed Western Australian Liberals to withdraw Coalition support for the referendum bill now before the Senate.
However any backflip on referendum support by Mr Abbott would represent a betrayal of Coalition partners the Nationals who, although highly critical of the Gillard government’s handling of the referendum process, have remained steadfast supporters of formalising the ability of Canberra to directly fund local government projects like the $3.5 billion Roads to Recovery scheme.
As a party that is largely based in rural and country areas, the Nationals have the most to lose from the referendum collapsing or being lost because dozens of regional local government projects and schemes that now attracts funds from Canberra could be put in jeopardy after two High Court decisions found existing direct funding mechanisms unconstitutional.
In a fiery speech Liberals Senator for Western Australia Dean Smith told the Senate that bipartisan support for the referendum was close to tatters and branded the funding attached to ‘yes’ and ‘no’ cases shameful.
Earlier this week federal Local Government Minister Anthony Albanese announced that the ‘yes’ vote campaign would be given $10 million while the ‘no’ camp would be given only $500,000 based on the way votes in the House of Representatives fell when the referendum bill was put to the lower house.
Although the disparity of funding for the contrasting referendum cases is a poor look for the Gillard government, the structure of the campaign funding mechanism is essentially consistent with advice from the Spiegelman expert panel.
As only two Coalition MPs voted against the referendum bill, a factor essentially controlled by Opposition leader Tony Abbott, funding was allocated proportionally on this basis with Mr Albanese subsequently arguing that ‘no’ case protagonists were actually getting slightly more than they would if the formula was strictly followed.
One frequently cited justification for the structure of the campaign funding formula, which is different to how funding for both sides of the Republic referendum was run, is that it ensures that those with a genuine interest in the issues the referendum is on receive money –rather than opportunistic campaigners like think-tanks lining up for what is essentially easy money.
But it is not just the West that is causing headaches for proponents of local government funding reform.
A last minute bout of brinksmanship by Campbell Newman’s Queensland state government has compounded problems by now demanding the insertion of two extra sentences in the referendum question.
The Queensland state government had previously been strong supporter of the Constitutional recognition. In March Premier Campbell Newman wrote to the Prime Minister to pledge his support and say that in his government’s view Constitutional recognition did not diminish the State’s primary constitutional responsibility for local government.
But that once firm view has now clearly altered.
“The referendum question in its current form is little more than a Trojan Horse for a Canberra power grab that could have far reaching consequences,” said Queensland Local Government Minister David Crisafulli.
“At a time when people in places like Noosa, Livingstone, Mareeba and Douglas have shown overwhelmingly just how important local councils are, the last thing we want to do is allow federal tentacles to tamper with the controls of local government.
“Legal advice has confirmed the question’s current wording would allow the federal government to make funding dependent on whatever conditions it liked,” Mr Crisafulli said.
The last minute backflip has drawn criticism from the President of the Queensland Local Government Association, Margaret de Wit.
“I don’t know why they are doing it, it’s most disappointing,” Ms de Wit told Government News. “We can’t afford to be risking losing federal funding.”
Ms de Wit said that in her discussions with everyday people, there was support for the case for change when the issue was explained to them simply.
Western Australian Local Government Association president Troy Pickard was also warning of the risks of losing federal funding. He said that his group would be outlining these risks.
Mr Pickard told Government News that Western Australian local governments “remain committed to the referendum [yes case] to secure vital funding.”
Greens federal leader Senator Christine Milne labelled the objecting Liberals’ public rejections on the Senate floor as “absolute sabotage” and “fear mongering” that was putting the referendum in jeopardy – despite ostensive commitment from Tony Abbott.
But Western Australian Liberals Senator Alan Eggleston warned Senator Milne that there was more than a rear guard of Liberals opposing the referendum.
“It’s far from a rump, it is most state divisions,” Senator Eggleston said.
He said that former Labor Prime Minister Bob Hawke had again advocated for the abolition of the states, a statement he said showed that the “ALP’s position has not changed since the 1920s.”
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