Referendum committee goes another round

By Julian Bajkowski

The parliamentary committee tasked with deciding whether a referendum on financial recognition of local government in the Australian Constitution should go ahead will hold a rapid second public hearing on February 20th as opposing sides of politics battle to a September plebiscite alive.

A notice from the Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition of Local Government has scheduled a further hearing in Sydney to hear additional evidence after the Australian Local Government Association (ALGA) warned that there was not enough time before the next election for a ‘yes’ vote to have a realistic likelihood of success.

However with 14th September federal election date now set by Prime Minister Julia Gillard, political backing for a referendum – from Labor, the Coalition, the Greens and independent members of parliament – has solidified despite the ambivalence of the peak local government group.

Key referendum backer, Tony Windsor, has previously told Government News that the long lead time to the next poll now “removes objections of time and structure” around making plebiscite for change successful.

Mr Windsor’s comments, along with strong political backing for the plebiscite, have significantly upped the stakes for ALGA because of the risk cross-party support for a referendum may not survive after the election.

A core question the committee is anticipated to grapple with on the 20th February is how to sell the largely technical change to the Constitution to the electorate, with the highly uncharacteristic agreement between divergent sides of politics an obvious selling point.

The announcement of the election date will also afford the Australian Electoral Commission more certainty of the mechanics of a referendum in its evidence to the committee because what were previously hypothetical scenarios now have the certainty of a timeline.

The clarification of the election date has also sharpened the focus on the degree of support a referendum now has in federal Cabinet.

Former Attorney General Nichola Roxon was known to be a strong backer of the need for a local government to receive financial recognition in the Constitution to overcome the legal uncertainties generated by the Williams and Pape cases in the High Court of Australia.

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