20/05/2013 - 16:03

Referendum fails to engage

20/05/2013 - 16:03


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MAKING predictions in politics is fraught with risk.

One prediction, however, can be made with confidence – the referendum on September 14 to recognise local government in the Constitution will fail.

It’s hard enough to get referendum questions passed that appear to have popular support, but this issue has come out of left field, with support limited to sections of the government and federal Liberal Party, the Greens, and the local government sector. There is no groundswell in the community.

The initial justification seems to be that the nation’s third tier of government is not mentioned in the Constitution, and that this is an anomaly and should be rectified.

Opponents say there are many areas critical to good government that are not covered by the Constitution, which one of my colleagues consistently reminds me was originally an act of the British Parliament. Areas omitted include political parties and cabinet, which are integral parts of the decision-making process.

The government promised to hold the referendum when it signed a deal to form a minority administration in 2010 with the independents and the Greens. A key justification was to stave off a possible High Court challenge to making federal grants to local government for roads and other works, and bypassing state governments.

Local Government Minister Anthony Albanese has downplayed this possibility, saying the change would simply recognise reality, without affecting the power of states to administer local authorities.

Councils currently operate under state government legislation – the states make the rules and can (and do) dismiss or suspend councils they believe are ‘off the rails’.

The upcoming referendum is the third attempt to give councils recognition at the national level. The first was in 1974 and dealt directly with the Commonwealth giving financial assistance to councils. Only NSW voted to support the measure, which was backed by 46.85 per cent of voters.

The next attempt was in 1988 and simply called for local government to be recognised in the Constitution. It won only 33.62 per cent popular support and was lost in all states.

History shows that questions are only carried if they have the support of both major political parties. Premier Colin Barnett has already flagged his opposition, and this is likely to catch on around the nation.

One reason for the states’ suspicion is that, with recognition in the Constitution, any attempt to impose their authority on councils could end up in the High Court. In these matters the only real winners are lawyers, with taxpayers and ratepayers the big losers.

For a referendum to pass, it must be supported by a majority of voters in a majority of states. Only eight out of 44 Commonwealth referendums have been passed since 1906.

Dumping this latest idea would mean the $55.6 million set aside in the federal budget for the futile exercise could be put to better use. And a lot of time would be saved.



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