Another step towards referendum on Constitutional recognition of local government

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Another step towards referendum on Constitutional recognition of local government

Posted 25/01/2013 by Rob Lundie

Parliament House Canberra Marble FoyerOn 24 January 2013 the Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition of Local Government recommended in its preliminary report that a referendum on the financial recognition of local government be held in conjunction with the 2013 federal election.
The Committee was established in late 2012 to build on the work done by the Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition of Local Government, specifically to inquire into ‘financial recognition of local government', the majority finding of the Expert Panel, to assess the likelihood of success for such recognition through a referendum, the consequences of recognition for local, state and territory governments, as well as whether and when a referendum should be put.

The Committee agreed with submissions that expressed the view that the recent Pape and Williams High Court cases have provided 'a moment for action'. It feels that there is sufficient time to build community support for the proposal and to ensure that the appropriate legislation and administrative requirements are in place.

It recommended that the referendum be held in conjunction with the 2013 federal election noting a submission which indicated that where a state election and referendum had occurred together in New South Wales this had not created problems and that the referendum proposal is 'rarely the most contentious political issue at stake' during the election campaign. Another factor favouring simultaneity is that a stand alone referendum would cost $121 million, an extra $17 million to $18 million than if both were held together.

The Committee recommended that Section 96 of the Constitution be amended so that it reads:
... the Parliament may grant financial assistance to any State or to any local government body formed by State or Territory legislation on such terms and conditions as the Parliament thinks fit. 

Recognising that any referendum is unlikely to be passed without the support of all levels of government, the Committee recommended the Commonwealth commence negotiations with the states and territories to secure their support for the proposal.

The Committee also recommended that preparatory activities for the referendum be initiated. These include such things as the development of a national civics education campaign about the referendum including a "yes/no" case pamphlet, and the drafting of the constitution amendment bill by the end of January.

In a dissenting report, Coalition members of the Committee expressed concern that there may not be enough time to gain the support of the states and territories, nor for the public to be fully educated as to the merits of the case for change. Given that it is recommended that the referendum is held in conjunction with the federal election, the time for such processes could be significantly shortened if an election is held much sooner than the latest possible date of 30 November 2013.

The Australian Local Government Association (ALGA) had expressed similar concerns to the Committee indicating they would rather have the referendum postponed than to see it fail through lack of time and effort to properly educate the public so as to ensure that it is passed. It said that a failed referendum would set back the cause of local government recognition for 50 years.

While still concerned about the time available for the referendum process, the ALGA welcomed the recommendations of the preliminary report. It also urged the Government to establish a Joint Standing Committee on Constitutional Recognition.

Local Government Minister Simon Crean welcomed the report and called on the Coalition and local government bodies to join with the Government in lobbying the states and territories for change.

Image source: Wikimedia Commons

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