Referendum committee boils over

By Julian Bajkowski

Federal parliamentarians have rounded on their local government colleagues over an attempt to try and postpone a referendum to secure legal certainty over direct funding for council-based projects from Canberra.

At a visibly tense public hearing of the Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition of Local Government in Sydney on Wednesday, federal MPs including chair and Member for Greenway Michelle Rowland (Labor) and Member for New England and key independent Tony Windsor, repeatedly grilled the Australian Local Government Association (ALGA) over why it has now apparently backed away from holding a referendum in conjunction with this year’s federal poll.

“I’m having a bit of difficulty absorbing the no case from the people who have been proposing the yes case,” Mr Windsor said.

“For [the] 20 years that I have been involved in politics this issue has been at the forefront of local government. [It is because of] the nature of this Parliament that this issue is being given a chance in terms of a referendum. I am shocked to read and listen to some of the arguments put in the most recent submission [and that have been put] this morning almost developing a no case not to take advantage of a Parliament that’s willing to go ahead with your argument.”

After years of campaigning for Constitutional recognition of local government, ALGA earlier this week publicly revealed that it  is now so concerned about the prospect of a recognition referendum being defeated at a concurrent federal poll that it would rather wait than rush and see the bid defeated at the polls for a third time since 1974.

The move by ALGA to back away from a referendum this year comes despite the issue maintaining solid bipartisan support which was recently reaffirmed in Government News by Coalition spokesman for Local Government, Senator Barnaby Joyce, who pointedly questioned the value of having a referendum separated from normal election.

In a blistering challenge to ALGA’s change of heart, Mr Windsor firmly cautioned the peak group against jumping at shadows and warned that it would not get another chance of securing its long-held dream anytime soon.

“I suggest the lack of confidence that you have in yourselves and in the Australian people is something that maybe your organisation needs to look at,” Mr Windsor said.

“You seem to be developing this mythical case that there is this great deal of opposition out there – I don’t see it – that you can’t present the argument …  You may well wait another 20 years to get the chance to present it if you become the agent of arguing against your own case … that you can’t be successful with your argument unless the timing is absolutely right.”

The legality of direct federal funding to local governments was thrown into question following a successful High Court challenge to the Howard government’s school chaplaincy program, known as the Williams case.

The decision has cast serious doubt over whether direct funding by Canberra of local government based projects, including the multi-billion dollar ‘Roads to Recovery’ program, which is regarded as a major success across jurisdictions.

The Gillard government’s support for a referendum on so-called ‘Constitutional financial recognition’ for local government was a key part of the deal with independent lower house MPs to form government in a hung parliament.

In essence the change would allow local governments remain under the control of state governments, but to be able to have specific policy outcomes or projects funded directly from Canberra without first going through state treasuries.

However a key concern of ALGA is that a lack of public understanding of why Constitutional recognition is legally necessary to guarantee direct federal funding would most likely be interpreted by a jaded electorate as having little benefit other than to politicians themselves, and thus rejected.

The vice president of ALGA, Keith Rhoades, previously told Government News that he would prefer to sit out an election as opposed to seeing a defeated referendum result in Constitutional recognition falling by the wayside for as long as 50 years.

Not everyone share’s the peak group’s jitters about the likelihood of a referendum defeat just months away from a federal poll.

Constitutional lawyer and expert, Professor George Williams, told the committee that pre-referendum campaigns of between six weeks to eight weeks were sufficient to convince voters of the merits for a yes vote for change.

Professor Williams said that voters would support “sensible mechanical change” rather than campaign run on Constitutional recognition of local government in its own right, which he described as a “losing proposition.”

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