Facts versus myths on local government referendum
The Newman Government's reservations about the wording of the proposed change to recognise local government in the Constitution do not stand up to scrutiny. Read expert Professor George Williams' advice. Also read Premier Campbell Newman's letter to the Prime Minister supporting the current proposal.
Myth 1: This is Julia Gillard's referendum.
This referendum is the result of six years of work by local government through the Australian Local Government Association (ALGA). The concept was agreed formally in documents signed by the Greens and Independents as a part of arrangements to secure Government in 2010. Opposition Leader Tony Abbott and National Party Leader in the Senate Barnaby Joyce have publicly supported it since 2011.
Myth 2: This referendum has been rushed.
After significant preliminary work the ALGA ran a summit in Melbourne in 2008. Following the Pape case in the High Court in 2009 the ALGA formalised its position aimed at securing funding for communities through Councils. Opposition Leader Tony Abbott and National Party Leader in the Senate Barnaby Joyce gave a commitment to support financial recognition of Local Government in 2011 at the ALGA Conference in 2011.
Myth 3: There is no need for this referendum.
Specific legal advice indicates that since the Pape case in 2009, the High Court has no support for direct funding of local government. Programs such as the Howard Government's "Roads to Recovery" program (worth $28m a year to SA communities) will fall at the slightest challenge. Even if not challenged directly, no Commonwealth agency will now recommend a direct funding model for fear it will be challenged.
Myth 4: The referendum is about "recognising" Local Government and entrenching it as a level of government.
No, this is about financial recognition. ALGA sought specific legal advice in order to craft an amendment to the Constitution which would address the direct funding problem but not open the confusion surrounding referenda held in 1974 and 1988 referenda. The advice indicated that our objective could be achieved by amending Section 96 of the Constitution (a funding section). The High Court has previously found that Section 96 provides no power to make laws. As a result of the change, the Federal Government will only be able to offer funding to councils, which may be refused. Indeed our advice is that the State, if it wished, would be able to prevent councils receiving funding by passing laws to that effect.
Myth 5: It is a power grab by Canberra to control local councils.
Through this amendment, the Commonwealth cannot make laws about local government. The amendment makes clear that local government is created by, and accountable to state parliaments. Indeed subject to requirements of state constitutions, state parliaments will continue to have the power to abolish local government without recourse to the Commonwealth.
Myth 6: The Coalition is opposed to recognising Local Government in the Constitution.
There is bipartisan support for this referendum.
Prior to the Hawke Referendum of 1988, the Liberal Party adopted a position in support of recognising local government in the constitution – through a committee chaired by Bob Katter Senior. Liberal Leader Tony Abbott and National Party Leader in the Senate Barnaby Joyce have indicated their strong support for confirming the power of the Commonwealth to fund councils directly as in the Howard initiated Roads to Recovery Program. Both gave a clear commitment to recognition in front of 900 Council delegates at the ALGA National General Assembly in 2011.
Myth 7: This question has been rejected twice before by the public. It's the same question as posed in 1974 and 1988.
In 1974 the Whitlam referendum proposed amending Section 51 of the Constitution – the Commonwealth's law-making powers. In 1988 the Hawke referendum proposed establishing a new section in the constitution to recognise local government. Both created confusion about the extent of the change being sought and both were proposed by the Commonwealth. The current referendum has been sought and designed by local government only to confirm Federal funding powers.