By Julian Bajkowski
A referendum on the financial recognition of local government in the Australian Constitution now appears to be highly likely after both federal Local Government minister Anthony Albanese and the Australian Local Government Association strongly hinted that a positive announcement is imminent.
Sources close to the process have hinted that a formal announcement is due next week, most likely towards the weekend, that will finally give the green light for a vote on direct federal funding of local government initiatives to be put to electors in conjunction with the September 14 federal election.
The probable timing of the announcement would be pre-Budget and suggests that an agreement has been reached with the Coalition in terms of how a pre-referendum campaign would be conducted.
So far all sides of politics have supported the notion of a referendum on financial recognition of local government to remove grave legal uncertainties over direct federal funding of projects like the highly popular circa $3 billion Roads to Recovery initiative that has arisen following decisions in the Pape and Williams High Court cases.
Over the past month the Australian Local Government Association has been advertising for a campaign manager to coordinate the case for a yes vote for direct funding for councils with the backing of a council-funded campaign war chest and an as yet undisclosed amount of federal money.
In its weekly newsletter this morning ALGA said that it expects the federal government to “soon announce” the referendum.
“Now that the Commonwealth has had the chance to discuss the issue in depth with state and territory local government Ministers, the Federal Government needs to make a decision quickly to move the referendum forward," ALGA President Felicity-ann Lewis said.
"As we have argued for many years, the only way to protect direct federal funding for community services and infrastructure is through a simple and pragmatic change to the Constitution to include local government in Section 96 [of the Australian Constitution].”
However there is far less agreement on whether the announcement of a referendum and the time left before the election will be sufficient to convince jaded voters that there is a sufficient case for change.
The need to convince the electorate that a yes vote is the best option offers the highly salacious prospect of arch combatants Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott making a joint announcement where they are actually seen to agree and cooperate on something – along with the Independents and the greens.
Some state governments, including Western Australia, have refused to back the case for direct funding fearing it potentially allows Canberra to bypass the states on some funding areas.
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