By Julian Bajkowski
Queensland Premier Campbell Newman has thrown down the gauntlet to other Australian state and territory leaders to back the ‘yes’ case in a proposed referendum on financial recognition of local governments or risk losing billions of dollars of direct Commonwealth funding for council projects and services.
In a dramatic escalation of pressure on fellow state governments to support a Constitutional amendment to guarantee direct Commonwealth funding, Mr Campbell is understood to have written to his colleagues urging them to back the reform after New South Wales Premier Barry O’Farrell expressed his suspicions over the plebiscite.
While the content of the Mr Newman’s letter is yet to be publicly released, the move drew rare and emphatic support from the polar opposite of the political spectrum after Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon publicly applauded the move from the Queensland Premier.
“Queensland Premier Peter Newman’s enthusiasm for a referendum is matched by NSW and Queensland local councils which are strongly behind a referendum this year to provide financial certainty so key services can be delivered to local communities,” Senator Rhiannon said.
Mr Newman is well versed in local government challenges having been the Lord Mayor of Brisbane immediately prior to his election as Premier.
The strength of cross-partisan and grass roots support for a Constitutional change follows two key decisions in the High Court – the Williams and Pape cases respectively – that have thrown grave doubts over the legal safety of initiatives funded directly by the Commonwealth including Roads to Recovery.
The revelation of Mr Newman’s vocal entry into the debate coincided with a second public hearing of the Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition of Local Government on Wednesday which heard evidence from a number of councils strongly backing the referendum at the next federal election.
The grass-roots push from councils followed a fiery hearing a month ago when federal parliamentarians rounded on the Australian Local Government Association (which has a seat at the Council of Australian Governments) after it effectively attempted to stall a referendum because of a feared lack of preparation and public education and support.
The move from the ALGA was met with immediate hostility from Committee chair Michelle Rowland and independent MP Tony Windsor who warned councils were unlikely to get another shot at a plebiscite.
Mr Windsor later told Government News that some local governments had expressed their disgust to him over ALGA’s actions and accused the peak group’s executive of acting like “nervous nellies”.
Some elements of ALGA are believed to favour a bid to make a hold referendum outside the regular election cycle, a move that the Australian Electoral Commission has estimated would cost $121 million.
The chorus of castigation aimed at ALGA appears to have had some effect. On Wednesday the peak group conspicuously softened its tone over its concerns at the committee and reiterated its support for a 14th September plebiscite.
In January we expressed our strong concern at the time left to put in place the preconditions for a successful referendum. We were criticised for expressing those concerns which were portrayed as a lack of commitment,” ALGA President Felicity-ann Lewis told the committee on Wednesday.
“ALGA maintained during robust questioning at the last hearing of this committee that we were committed to the referendum and that we would be ready to campaign in favour of a referendum for the financial recognition of local government in 2013. That point needs to be underlined,” Ms Lewis said.
However she welcomed that the committee’s preliminary report of 24th of January had been “seized with a sense of urgency by about the need to take immediate action to satisfy preconditions including engagement by federal government Ministers with their state government counterparts to secure support for the referendum proposal.”
Ms Lewis said that she had “personally spoken” to the local government ministers and Premiers with whom I have a relationship…I do not think there is anything more we can do as local governments.”
However the group also tabled a document outlining the “timeline” of the referendum on Australia becoming a republic, a comparison that is understood to have further irritated some members of the committee and councils.
Witnesses at Wednesday’s hearing said that councils were in a position to communicate to constituents that without a constitutional change funding for key community services could cease.
The Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition of Local Government is expected to deliver its final report and recommendations on the referendum in March.
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