The Whitlam connection: local government in the Hawke era

Gough Whitlam and Bob Hawke were two very different Prime Ministers. Whitlam is remembered as a great social reformer; Hawke is viewed more as an economic reformer.

Dr Lyndon Megarrity

Yet if we look more closely, it can be observed that they shared some common ground. Significantly, the commitment of both Whitlam and Hawke to the local government sector is worth exploring.

In his 1979 Boyer Lectures, Bob Hawke made a radical case for increasing the powers of local government which reflected the federal reform dreams of former Prime Minister (1972-75) Gough Whitlam:

“Australians would be better served by the elimination of the … States – which no longer serve their original purpose and act as a positive impediment to achieving good government in our community,” he said.

“It would be desirable  … to strengthen what is now the third tier, local government, so that in relevantly demarcated geographical areas people participate in the decision-making process on issues appropriate to be decided at that level.”

Hawke as Prime Minister from 1983 to 1991 never showed any sign of following this ambitious policy, Indeed, political historians and journalists have often portrayed the Hawke Government as keen to disassociate itself from Whitlam’s style and manner of government.

However, at least in the case of local government, the unfinished business of the Whitlam years remained on the Hawke agenda during the 1980s.

Australia’s first local government minister

The Hawke era saw Tom Uren appointed Australia’s first ever Minister for Local Government. Uren had experience working with local government as Whitlam’s Minister for Urban and Regional Development in the 1970s.

Subsequently, the Hawke Government built on Whitlam’s contribution to Commonwealth-local government relations.

Seeing local government as a useful means of enhancing the quality of life of Australian citizens, Whitlam had made an unprecedented federal investment in local government programs: so much so that it would have been politically foolish for subsequent Federal Governments to walk away from the commitment that Whitlam had established.

The 1980s was a time of fiscal austerity, during which local government was targeted for savings like other Ministerial portfolios. But Hawke made it clear that he was a strong supporter of local government as a political and social good that provided local roads, sporting facilities, libraries and a raft of other community services.

The most important gesture the Hawke Government made towards the local government sector was to hold a referendum in September 1988 to recognise local government in the Australian Constitution. As he told the Institute of Management National Seminar (30 May 1988), “it is important for Australian democracy that we accept the fact that local government bodies have authority derived from the communities that elect them, to whom they are accountable and which they represent.”

In Hawke’s view, the referendum was not about removing power from the State level. It was merely enshrining “the position of local government as one of three tiers of Government in a smoothly running Federal system”.

The referendum failed with only a third of electors voting ‘yes’. The failure may have been caused by lack of bipartisan support, with Coalition MPs regarding the proposed constitutional change as an example of a dubious power-grab by the Federal Government with an uncertain outcome.

Perhaps voters were not convinced that a symbolic gesture towards local government amounted to much. The proposed recognition of local government in the constitution would have formalised the status quo: that systems of local government are established and maintained by each individual State. There was no suggestion that the Constitution would give greater autonomy or new powers to the third tier of government.

Also influential in the defeat of constitutional recognition was the decision to hold the local government referendum on the same day as three competing referenda (all of which failed).

The 1988 referendum was eerily similar to May 1974, when Whitlam attempted to pass a referendum changing the constitution to allow the Commonwealth to fund local government directly rather than via State governments. As in 1988, bipartisan support was lacking.

While Labor spokesman Tom Uren regarded the referendum as elevating the position of local government within the federal system, the Coalition portrayed it as a step towards the centralisation of power in Canberra. As in 1988, the 1974 referendum was only one of four questions put to the electorate on the same date.

The lessons of Whitlam and his local government referendum were clearly not learned by Hawke. Failure to gain bipartisan support, as well as the distraction of competing referenda, made persuading the electorate of the importance of local government reform an uphill battle in both 1974 and 1988.

Nevertheless, the local government constitutional reforms attempted by Whitlam and Hawke reflected an idealism, even excitement, about what might yet be achieved by local government as a vital part of Australian democracy.

Hawke and Whitlam were different in many ways, but they were united in their support for local government’s role in the federal system and its potential to deliver quality of life at the local level. As Hawke argued in a speech at Coburg in 1984:

The immediate, grass-roots needs of our communities are frequently the most pressing. Very often they are also best understood and best met by those engaged in local governments.

Dr Lyndon Megarrity is adjunct lecturer at James Cook University, author of the parliamentary research paper Local Government and the Commonwealth: an Evolving Relationship and co-author of Made in Queensland: A New History.

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