Referendum 2013: June Update

Jessy Burke / June 24, 2013 11:43 AM

Come September many voters will be going to the polls with little or no information on the proposed constitutional recognition of local government. For many, the referendum question will be a complete surprise.

Referendum Report

The National General Assembly of Local Government (NGA) was held last Monday, where local government representatives and federal politicians debated local government issues and affirmed bi-partisan support for the upcoming proposed constitutional changes.

Opposition Spokesperson for Local Government, Senator Barnaby Joyce told council delegates “to win this argument in the media and in your local communities ... what works is when you get around and talk to people in the community individually."

Councils have some catching up to do, with at least one major metropolitan newspaper last week vehemently attacking the proposed changes.

Media Coverage

The Herald Sun last week began an earnest campaign encouraging readers to vote “No” in the upcoming local government referendum. In a front-page and double-page diatribe on Monday, the Sun referred to new legal advice given to the Victorian State Government and claimed that “dodgy councils” would be much harder to sack if the proposed constitutional change went ahead.

It published the results of a poll which highlighted the lack of knowledge in the community on the referendum. 70% of respondents were not aware they would be casting a vote on the issue in September, and 76% claimed it was a waste of tax-payers money.

Fairfax media has been far quieter on the issue, in favour of speculation on the Labor leadership. Late last week however, it ran a number of articles taking aim at the Federal Government’s handling of the issue, especially at the distribution of funds announced by Local Government Minister Anthony Albanese.

Legal Advice and Back-Flipping

Last Monday the Federal Government allocated $10 million in funding to a “Yes” campaign run by the Australian Local Government Association, and $500,000 to a “No” campaign, run by the conservative think tank, the Institute of Public Affairs. Albanese said it was in direct proportion to last month’s voting in the House of Representatives, where two out of 134 MPs opposed the change.

Greg Craven, a constitutional lawyer, said in The Age that the High Court could take a dim view of the government’s allocation of funds, and described the government’s handling of the issue as “'fundamentally undemocratic”.

The states have been busy gathering legal advice and finalising their positions. In Queensland, Campbell Newman has done a complete 180° from his stance earlier this year and joined the ranks of the nay-sayers.

Local Government Minister, David Crisafulli said “Legal advice has confirmed the question’s current wording would allow the federal government to make funding dependent on whatever conditions it liked.” He has called for an extra two sentences to be included in the referendum question.

"We do not want Canberra's tentacles on our local councils. We do not want this to be a Trojan horse for Canberra running everything in our local communities,” he said.

Local councils do not appear worried by the spectre of federal control and are preparing campaigns for their local areas.

Earlier this month, Melbourne Lord Mayor Robert Doyle did a back-flip in the opposite direction and came out supporting Melbourne Council’s decision to allocate more than $70,000 in funds for the “Yes” campaign. He had previously said he thought the question should be taken off the table entirely.

We’ll watch and see how each campaign attempts to influence a mostly unsuspecting electorate in the coming weeks.