Voters ready to debate constitutional change

By Angela Dorizas

Australians are a ready to consider changes to the Constitution, but support for local government recognition is not strong enough for a successful referendum campaign.

The second phase of results from the Australian Constitutional Values Survey found strong support for referenda on Indigenous recognition and changing Australia’s federal system.

Conducted by Professor AJ Brown and Dr Ron Levy from Griffith Law School, the survey was conducted nationally by Newspoll, with funding from the Australian Research Council.
Researchers surveyed 1201 Australians in May 2008 and 1100 respondents in March 2010.

There was little support for a referendum on becoming a republic, with only 59 per cent of respondents indicating that it was an important issue.

Of those surveyed, 75 per cent indicated that it was important to have a referendum on Indigenous recognition and 73 per cent said it was important to consider what levels of government should be recognised in the Constitution.

However, 77 per cent said it was important to resolve roles and responsibilities of the different levels of government in the federal system.

Professor Brown said support for local government recognition was not strong enough for a successful referendum campaign.

“Despite high public interest in changing the Constitution to improve Australia’s federal system, base support for constitutional recognition of local government remains line ball – nowhere near strong enough to lead to a successful referendum campaign,” he said.

“This is important because constitutional recognition of local government has been tried twice before  – in 1974 and 1988 – and failed to win national majorities both times.

“Australians are logically going to ask what is different about a proposal that is now put up for their consideration.”

The 2008 Australian Constitutional Values Survey found that 75 per cent of votes might support constitutional recognition of local government if they were convinced it would lead to a better funded, accountable and more capable tier of government.

Professor Brown said without this caveat, base support for local government recognition, in the 2008 survey, was only 53 per cent.

Results from the March 2010 survey indicated that this support had dropped to 51 per cent.

“The results consistently indicate that Australians are interested in constitutional reform if it addresses some of the fundamental problems with Australia’s federal system, but may be unlikely to support recognition of local government unless convinced it will help achieve that objective,” Professor Brown said.

The Federal Government has committed to holding referenda during the current term of Parliament or at the next election on Indigenous recognition and inclusion of local government in the Constitution.

The Australian Local Government Association (ALGA) has proposed three possible questions to be put to voters: symbolic recognition in a new preamble; recognition of local government as an institution; or financial recognition, with an amendment to Section 96 to safeguard direct funding of local government.

ALGA has indicated that financial recognition is the preferred option.

State local government associations have begun developing education campaigns to convince Australian voters of the need for constitutional recognition.

Professor Brown said constitutional change was more likely to occur if citizens were engaged in the process.

“The results highlight that without a robust and comprehensive process for engaging citizens in the design of these proposals, it remains unlikely that enough of this public support will translate into a ‘yes’ vote to actually achieve any change,” Professor Brown said.

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