Why should local government be recognised in the Australian Constitution?
The Australian Government's legal ability to continue directly funding local councils has recently been successfully challenged in the High Court.
Recognising local government in the Constitution will secure the Australian Government's ability to continue providing direct funding for councils to maintain local roads, infrastructure, services and facilities that local communities need and deserve.
An example of direct funding programs is the Roads to Recovery program, where the Australian Government provides funding of about $350 million a year to councils for maintainance of local roads.
Why is this happening now?
In 2010 Prime Minister Julia Gillard undertook to hold such a referendum by the end of 2013.
Can local government win a referendum after failing twice already?
The two previous referenda held on the issue, in 1974 and 1988, failed because there was a lack of bi-partisan support for constitutional recognition, a lack of urgency to reform the system, poorly worded questions and multiple questions which confused the issue.
What is vital for a successful referendum?
Bipartisan support, a public education campaign and a referendum process that draws on the lessons of past referendums.
What change is local government seeking?
Local government is seeking an amendment of Section 96 of the Constitution so that it would read:
Parliament may grant financial assistance to any state or local government formed by or under a law of a state or territory on such terms and conditions as the Parliament sees fit.
The words reflect the recommendations of the Government's own expert panel and make it clear that local government will remain a State responsibility.
Why isn't it enough to be recognised in the state Constitutions?
It isn't relevant to the issue that faces us – the need to address the uncertainty around direct federal funding of councils. There is no change which can be made to state Constitutions to address that uncertainty.
Why not just seek symbolic recognition?
Symbolic recognition would mean mentioning local government in the preamble. A preamble is a statement that introduces a constitution but has no legal power. It will not lead to any practical outcomes for communities.
Why not simply revert to funding though the state governments, rather than seek to change the Constitution?
The Australian Government already funds local government through the states. This is how the Financial Assistance Grants (FAGs) work.
However, the Australian Government has decided over past decades that providing funding directly to local governments represents the most efficient way of assisting local communities.
Will securing constitutional recognition bolster local government finances?
In and of itself it will not 'bolster' local government finances. It will ensure that councils and the community can receive Australian Government funding without the threat of potential legal challenge.
ALGA has also prepared a more detailed FAQ.