By Julian Bajkowski
A stand-alone referendum on Constitutional Recognition for local government outside a federal election would cost taxpayers a minimum of $121 million in costs incurred by the Australian Electoral Commission alone, the agency responsible for running the polls has estimated.
The big number price tag is contained in the AEC’s submission to the Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition of Local Government and comes as the Australian Local Government Association seeks to back away from its previous support for a referendum on financial recognition in the Constitution at the next federal election.
After decades campaigning for a referendum, ALGA is now worried that there is insufficient time to educate and convince an increasingly cynical public of the need for a yes vote for recognition in a referendum.
The peak group’s last minute change of heart has infuriated key federal backers of a referendum, particularly pivotal independent lower house Member Tony Windsor who was instrumental in extracting a commitment from the government to put Constitutional Recognition to a vote at the next election.
The huge cost of running a referendum separate to an election is a major problem for ALGA because there is very little political support to spend such a large amount of money just decouple the issue from the normal electoral cycle.
The AEC has estimated that it would cost an extra $17 million to $18 million to run a referendum on top of normal election costs because of the efficiencies generated in running the two processes concurrently.
The change of heart on timing by ALGA has also provided ammunition to opponents of Constitutional recognition for local government recognition, particularly the argument that a change is both necessary and urgent in order to maintain funding flows from the Commonwealth for schemes like Roads to Recovery.
However by far the biggest risk is that the existing bipartisan federal support for a referendum will quickly evaporate if the main protagonists for change cannot agree on timing.
While the Coalition has so far supported a referendum at the next federal election in line with the deal struck with the independents, it is not yet clear what the Coalition’s position on Constitutional recognition for local government may be after a poll, irrespective of who wins power.
Some of the sharpest criticism of ALGA has come from federal members who support a referendum and did not hold back their criticism at a hearing of the Joint Select Committee on the Constitutional Recognition of Local Government last Wednesday.
Committee chair, Michelle Rowland, bluntly warned those seeking to retreat from the bruising nature of federal politics that they were dreaming if they thought the environment would become less challenging.
“That somehow there is going to be kinder, gentler environment in 12-months time, in two-years time, in however many years time …I think that is an absolute fantasy,” Ms Rowland said.
“If there ever was going to be an urgent problem that can be overcome by a mechanism of a referendum it is right now, because we have challenges right now that are going to the High Court on different matters that go to local government. They are still there on the books.”
Ms Rowland warned that that “any litigant can step up tomorrow” and challenge existing funding arrangements.
“What do councils do when the High Court decides that Roads to Recovery is unconstitutional and they have to pay the money back?” Ms Rowland said. “[What will] the punters think of us then?”
Comment below to have your say on this story.
If you have a news story or tip-off, get in touch at email@example.com.
Sign up to the Government News newsletter