By Julian Bajkowski
The Gillard government has finally released the text of the proposed Constitutional amendment to give financial recognition to local government, with Opposition spokesman on local government Barnaby Joyce emphatically backing the case for change in the face of a fresh Coalition rupture on the issue.
After weeks of intense horse-trading, Local Government Minister Anthony Albanese announced that the text of the proposed amendment to be put to a referendum on 14th September a week after the Prime Minister’s Office confirmed the poll.
The proposed change to Section 96 of the Constitution will read: “Financial assistance to states and local government bodies. During a period of ten years and after the establishment of the commonwealth and thereafter until the parliament otherwise provides, the parliament may grant financial assistance to any state, or to any local government body formed by a law of a state.”
Mr Albanese said the government had “gone out of our way to get the broadest possible support” for the change and that concerns had been taken on board.”
Despite the official and up-front bipartisan support for the Constitutional change, which must first be put to a referendum to be held on the same day of the election, a number of Coalition MPs are – at least two – are understood to be willing to cross the floor on the issue when it comes to a vote in the Lower House.
The Opposition’s dissenting votes against the legislation to enable the referendum essentially will have little more than a symbolic impact because of support from both independent MPs and the Coalition’s backers for change.
But the intensity of the dissent from some Coalition members is such that Senator Joyce was prompted to explain the cleavage as a victory for diversity – rather than a split.
“The Coalition will support it,” Senator Joyce said. “It is very important that we note that within the Coalition there will be a no case mounted because we believe in the democratic right of people and I acknowledge quite openly that there are strong feelings within the Coalition that are against the referendum.”
“That is fair to say and those people need their rights respected. No doubt through the course of the debate we will be clearly ventilating their views. I’m not afraid of that in any way, shape or form. It has always been my belief that if you have a clear view that is well premised, that you strongly hold, then you should be entitled to ventilate that view.”
Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus was more optimistic. He said the majority of Australians would be amazed local government wasn’t already mentioned in the Constitution.
Mr Dreyfus said funding flows would not change and that these needed to be future-proofed against a challenge in the High Court.
Just over $10 million in federal funds has been allocated to an education campaign to promote the differing cases.
The Australian Local Government Association (ALGA) welcomed the release of the draft constitutional amendment bill which it said outlined “a small and pragmatic change to the Constitution to include local government."
The local government peak body called on the Opposition to support the legislation.
"Including local government in the Constitution is about securing federal funding for vital local services and infrastructure for communities across the country," ALGA Vice President, Troy Pickard said.
"Without financial recognition in the Constitution, programs such as Roads to Recovery are at risk of High Court challenge and neither councils nor communities can afford that risk.”
Senator Joyce said that it was “extremely important that people understand that state governments will still have the right to form local governments, remove local governments, amalgamate local governments”
“There is nothing the local government can do to collect money from the federal government that isn’t authorised by the state. That is the caveat that is clearly placed in the amendment to Section 96 -that unless there is the authority of the state, you cannot do it.”
The National’s leader in the Senate said that he hoped that the form of words for the amendment placated “the well-held fears about the usurping of states’ rights by local government.”
“This clearly says local governments won’t be able to do anything unless the states allow it.”
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