Australia’s councils have voted to demand a referendum giving local government constitutional recognition.
The motion, calling for the government to initiate a referendum “at the earliest opportunity”, was carried 201 votes to three at the National General Assembly of the Australian Local Government Association (ALGA) in Canberra on Monday.
“Local Government presently depends on the continued will of the various State legislatures to empower local government to exist and perform various functions,” the motion put forward by Toowoomba Regional Council states.
“It seems preferable that the Commonwealth entrench the right for councils to exist and perform certain roles.”
If agreed to by the government, it would be the third referendum on giving local councils constitutional recognition after previous referenda held under the Whitlam and Hawke Labor governments both crashed.
It’s also not the first time ALGA has taken a crack at a referendum. A motion for a referendum within five years was passed at last year’s NGA but was given a polite thumbs down by the federal government, which said in a subsequent letter to ALGA it had no immediate plans to change the constitution.
Qualified support from the government
Monday’s vote came after Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack told delegates earlier in the day that local government should be recognised in the constitution to enable direct funding.
“I think, I believe, I know that local government should be in the constitution,” he said to applause from the audience.
“There is probably no more important thing than the commonwealth be able to fund local government directly, so that we can avoid going through the bureaucracy and so that we can get the money direct to where it needs to go, and that’s right on the ground.”
But he added a referendum had to be worded in the right way to convince the Australian public, and it had to be put to them at the right time.
“I know we’ve had referenda on it before, but next time when it goes up – and it has to, it should, it must – we have to get the wording right. And we have to put it in at a time when the Australian voting public is in the mood that they’re going to carry it.”
Calls for action on climate change
The referendum was among the first of a total of 121 motions that are up for debate over the next two days.
Motions to restore Financial Assistance Grants, support recycling and take action on climate change also featured heavily in Monday’s debate.
Motions passed at the ALGA NGA
- That the federal government declare a climate emergency
- That a minister be appointed to assist councils in their response the changing environment
- That the federal government establish a national strategy for climate change adaptation and resilience
- That the government consider indemnifying councils that take climate change mitigation initiatives
- That the current drought be elevated to natural disaster status
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