Referendum 2013: July Update

Bec Fary with Jessy Burke / July 11, 2013 03:36 PM

Kevin Rudd has precious few options left for setting a new election date, and pundits are tipping August 31 as the most likely outcome.

Election speculation

As we wait for our reappointed PM to confirm the date of the federal election, the future of the local government referendum is up in the air.

Timing provisions in the constitution and electoral law mean the referendum can’t be held any earlier than two months plus 18 days from the passage of the bill’s enabling laws, which passed parliament on June 24.  

This could present problems in the event of Rudd calling an early election.  

"If we have a very early election ... the referendum could not be held and then we'd be faced either with a prospect of having a separate referendum ballot some time later or perhaps the referendum not actually going forward," constitutional lawyer Professor George Williams told ABC radio on June 27.

A referendum held separately to an election could cost taxpayers an extra $100 million.

Roads, rates, rubbish, referendum? Local governments say 'yes' 

The Australian Local Government Association says it is “concerned” about election date speculation.

"I have been advised that setting an earlier date for the federal election may have adverse implications for holding the local government referendum, and that it may in fact not be possible to hold a referendum if the date is brought forward,” ALGA President Felicity-Ann Lewis said in a statement.  

In another statement, she said the referendum is important in ensuring "the continuation of direct, federal funding for community infrastructure and services".

"Councils aren't just about roads, rates and rubbish. We provide a full range of services for our communities. But without direct funding from the Commonwealth, local government would not be able to provide all the services that our communities need . . . councils need formal recognition as legitimate recipients of direct federal funding.  Without it, federal programs such as Roads to Recovery are at risk of legal challenge. 

"Winning a referendum is in the interests of every local community.  Communities need certainty that localised services and infrastructure such as aged care, employment and disability services, swimming pools, parks and sporting fields will continue to be funded."

If the referendum is successful, local government will become enshrined as the third tier of Australian government. This constitutional change would mean the Commonwealth can directly fund local government projects without state government interference.

Coalition says ‘no’

When Julia Gillard announced the referendum, she said it would be presented “in a bipartisan spirit”.

At the time, Tony Abbott offered his "in principle" support.

“We certainly do think that it’s important to continue the Commonwealth’s ability to be able to pay money under programs such as Roads to Recovery direct to local government,” he said.

As of May 13, at least two members of the Coalition were to be allowed to cross the floor for a ‘no’ case against the referendum, to enable “a proper debate about any proposal that the government puts forward”.

But since then, “two members” has grown to a hardline ‘no’, with Coalition support for the referendum fading.

At a news conference in May, Abbott said he had “some reservations about it”. His rhetoric has escalated somewhat since then.

“I have enormous reservations about the way the government has done this,” he said at a press conference in early July.  

“This thing has been done badly and undemocratically . . .  and I say to the Australian people, if you don’t understand it, don’t vote for it.”

In 2011, former NSW Supreme Court chief justice James Spigelman led an expert panel, concluding federal Coalition support was of “critical significance” to passing a referendum, so the Coalition’s resounding ‘no’ could be a game-changer.   

Will the referendum be a success?

Members of Parliament are invited to submit ‘yes’ and ‘no’ cases to the Australian Electoral Commission.

The passage of the Constitution Alteration (Local Government) 2013 bill through parliament on June 24 triggered a 28-day timeframe, meaning members of Parliament have until July 22 to submit a case. The AEC will then print and distribute a referendum booklet via the electoral roll.

“The AEC expects to print and distribute some 10 million referendum booklets in the period prior to referendum day,” Electoral Commissioner Ed Killesteyn said in a statement.

“The referendum booklet contains the proposed changes to the Constitution and the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ cases, prepared by members of Parliament.”

The booklets will be delivered no later than 14 days before the referendum vote. 

A campaign website,  www.thefactssayyes.com.au has just gone live, along with social media campaign pages. But it is looking like most voters will be ticking ‘no’, despite the best efforts of local government campaigners.  

Sir Robert Menzies once described the process of successfully passing a consitutional referendum as a “labour of Hercules”.

With only eight out of 42 referendums since Federation being successful, he doesn't seem to be far off the mark.

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