Referendum 2013: Recognising Local Government

Dan Wood / May 28, 2013 12:34 PM

If you blinked, you might have missed this seemingly esoteric bit of political blah-blah the Federal Government is forcing us to think about.

On May 9, Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced her government would fulfill a longstanding deal with key lower house independents by holding a referendum to formally recognise local government in Australia’s Constitution. 

The referendum will be held concurrent with the September 14 general election and is the culmination of a 2010 deal struck between Julia Gillard, and MPs Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott in a bid to stabilise the hung parliament.

If this referendum is successful, local government will be enshrined as the third tier of Australia’s governing hierarchy. This, in turn, will mean that the Commonwealth can continue to directly fund local government projects, without state government interference or the threat of legal challenges alleging the illegitimacy of such funding.

It’s an ostensibly bland piece of would-be constitutional tinkering and, by virtue of it concerning financey stuff, also too abstruse and “unsexy” to crack much of a mention in the vox pops.  But unsexy does not equate to unimportant.  So pundits have been hard at work poring over the rhetoric to distil those key points that might actually matter to Australians.  


What the pundits are saying

Shipra Chordia of the University of New South Wales weighs up the pros and cons of the main functional upshot of a ‘yes’ vote: direct funding for local government. Optimistically, this would cut red tape and “wasted” administrative costs by eliminating the trustee role of bullyboy states.  However, it could also allow unscrupulous members of future Federal governments to micro-manage local government through the selective (and manipulative) allocation of funds.

Chordia’s analysis is informed and concise, yet impartial to the point that it breeds cognitive dissonance. The reader is left wondering if it’s even possible to discern a “right” option, given such impossibly balanced outcomes.       

Research fellow with the Institute of Public Affairs, Chris Berg takes a noticeably less diplomatic stance (and that’s putting it diplomatically). Outlining his opposition to the direct funding model, Berg presents a reductive assessment of Australia’s local government councillors. To Berg they are all either “naïve do-gooders” or “cynical political apprentices looking for a safe state or federal seat”. Plus they’re “deeply deluded” to boot—yep, all of them! Berg’s petulance aside, he does make some salient points.

In June 2012 Parliament passed the Financial Framework Legislation Amendment Bill (No 3) which granted the executive increased freedom to spend public money unencumbered by established parliamentary process. The bill enables government to, in some instances, bypass an inquisitive legislature and/or naysaying judiciary. (Separation of powers is a bit of a hoary old chestnut anyway.) To some, including Berg, this bill is a dubious precursor to the upcoming referendum. It is seen as a move to hamstring Federalism and concentrate power in the hands of the Federal Government.

Now I’m not completely sold on Berg’s overdrawn claim that this bill is “one of the most undemocratic and scandalous pieces of legislation passed in recent years”.  However, that this legislation seems to have been drawn up as a knucklejerk middle-finger to the High Court’s 2012 ruling against the Federal Government’s school chaplaincy program is cause for concern. At the very least it’s a reason to scrutinise its tittles and t-bars. 

On the other side of the aisle the Australian Local Government Association (ALGA) has, perhaps unsurprisingly, wholeheartedly endorsed the ‘yes’ vote. Indeed, the ALGA “applauds the Australian Government for its support to include local government in the Constitution”. (It’s possible I’ve misinterpreted this, and the “applause” is more a sarcastic slow-clap, but I’ve never known a public sector newsletter to be so facetious.) In truth, the ALGA is justified in advocating for genuinely useful Commonwealth-funded initiatives implemented at the local level, such as the Roads to Recovery program. And a ‘yes’ result at the upcoming referendum could very well ensure the longevity of these programs.


What are the pollies making of all this?

Despite apparent bi-partisan support for this referendum, media coverage suggests a slight sense of unease at Capital Hill. This unease is understandable given the draft amendment bill [.pdf] was only recently released. So the specific phrasing of the bill is yet to be comprehensively articulated. We are left wondering exactly how much power future governments might be able to wrest from the states and territories based on crafty (mis)interpretations of an amended Constitution. And this concern should not be taken lightly, warns Senior Lecturer in Australian politics at Monash University, Narelle Miragliotta

Minister for Regional Development and Local Government Anthony Albanese is adamant the impact on the states’ influence will be minimal. But the reality of
pared back Federalism might be closer than we think. That is if populism reigns and a February 2013 poll was truly representative when it showed “78 per cent of respondents are in favour of territory and state laws being incorporated into one set of national laws”. But I remain skeptical. I’m skeptical because these results were proudly announced by fringe anti-state organisation Beyond Federation, for whom Web 2.0 obviously never happened as the group’s website features broken links and DOESN’T EVEN HAVE MULTIMEDIA! In a case like this I return to my number two (there are 10) personal motto: ‘if they don’t have a YouTube, they don’t have an argument’.

For my part I’ll be sitting tight on the fence, waiting for Julia to tell us precisely how all of this is going to work.