Australian Local Government Referendum Threat

Now we know the referendum on Constitutional Recognition for Local Government will occur alongside the Federal Election on 14th September the opponents are coming out of the shadows with all guns blazing.  They seem to be predominantly right wing libertarians, who relish a chance to attack any tier of government and see Local Government as an easy target.

First up was Prof. Greg Craven, who was interviewed by Jonathan Green on Radio National’s Sunday Extra program, also interviewed was Stephen Mayne speaking in favour of Constitutional reform and Prof. George Williams an Australian Constitution expert.  Stephen Mayne, a Melbourne City Councillor and Crikey.com founder put the Local Government position that the reform is required as a housekeeping measure to secure supply of funds from Federal Government to Local Government, funding that is long standing and essential for Local Government to function.  The need has arisen out of recent High Court decisions that puts into question the ability of the Federal Government to fund Local Government.  George Williams basically backed up those points.  However Greg Craven responded by saying the referendum is like a scorpion, small but lethal.  He went on to say: (In) Reality is this is a con, ….. LG has had a sort of erotic fantasy they would like to be in the constitution.  He mused that other entities have equal claim to Constitutional Recognition, suggesting Universities or the ABC, which is irrelevant, as while both are important neither are a tier of Government.  He went on: Why are we going to put a bunch of corporations created by State Governments with a not terribly good reputation in many ways for fiscal effectiveness or probity in the constitution?

George Williams made the point that the need for recognition is a view taken by people such as Professor Anne Twomey, former chief justice of NSW supreme Court Jim Spigelman and it was a unanimous finding of a parliamentary committee in March of politicians across all sides of politics.

Greg Craven just ramped up his attack on the proposed amendment and Stephen Mayne.  He said the idea was just to insert a bunch of patsies in the constitution to spend your money.  In his final patronising attack on Stephen Mayne he said Steve I’m sure George and I would be happy to give you a tutorial on constitutional law after this.  If it’s opposed by people not trying to sell a pup it will lose.

Later in the week also on Radio National, Counterpoint host, Amanda Vanstone opened a debate with Chris Breg from institute of public affairs thus: There will be a referendum at the same time as the federal election on the 14th September. It will ask voters whether they agree to the recognition of local government in the Constitution. A ‘yes’ vote would guarantee the federal government’s ability to directly fund local government projects such as the Roads to Recovery program, and services such as childcare, sporting fields, swimming pools and local libraries. That sounds simple enough but what does it really mean? Well if we do vote yes we are giving the Commonwealth extraordinary powers to free its spending decisions from parliamentary scrutiny and undermine the states (my emphasis). Obviously this was always going to be very one-sided, note it says Well if we do vote yes we are giving the Commonwealth extraordinary powers to free its spending decisions from parliamentary scrutiny and undermine the states not a proposition but a statement of fact.  And for perspective, guest Chris Breg, Wikipedia describes his organisation thus;  The Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) is a public policy think tank[1] based in Melbourne, Australia. It advocates free market economic policies such as privatisation and deregulation of state-owned enterprises, trade liberalisation and deregulated workplaces, climate change skepticism (through its environmental subsidiary the Australian Environment Foundation), and the accountability of non-government organisations (NGOs).[citation needed] In its own words, the Institute believes in “the free market of ideas, the free flow of capital, a limited and efficient government, the rule of law, and representative democracy.”[2].

Again, we were subjected to a right wing libertarian, though this time he was fed by a like-minded interviewer, with no voice to the contrary on offer.

His first abandoning of the facts was his assertion that the referendum has nothing to do with Local Government.  According to Breg it’s all about the Federal Government abandoning the States and funding Local Government directly to freeze out the States, it’s a power play between Canberra and the States.  Clearly this is not the case, funding from the Federal Government to the States will not be affected one iota.  He then goes on to suggest that if there is a concern direct funding from the Federal Government to Local Government may be deemed unconstitutional by the High Court then it follows the Gillard Government has been breaking the law each time it funds Local Government.  Maybe Greg Craven could give Breg a tutorial on Constitutional law.  For instance he claims that Local Government elections are ‘as compulsory as State and Federal elections.  Wrong!  He then goes on to proclaim Local Governments are not scrutinised and that local papers do not look into them.  Wrong!  He claims there is corruption scandal after corruption scandal regarding Local Government and that they do not get the scrutiny they need and are not qualified to do the job we ask them to.  Does this man not listen to the news at all?  We have reports from the CCC investigation into NSW parliamentarians where their evidence shows they feel they are untouchable.  Show me the same level of corruption in Local Government?  He ends by peddling the lie that Local Government is a very deeply opaque level of government.  In fact unlike State and Federal governments, all Local Government decisions are made in the public domain, it is the most open and accountable government format in Australia.

Another journal with libertarian tendencies focusing on the arts and politics is the Quadrant.  Its online piece is a 3,000 word essay authored by David Mitchell.  In his piece Mitchell makes the case for a NO vote on the grounds Local Government is not a legitimate tier of Governance so consequently the referendum is a waste of money.  He also makes the case that we would not be having the referendum at all if it were not for the ‘deals’ done between the Gillard Government, the Greens and independents when Labor formed a minority Government.  Frankly how we got to this stage is unimportant, what is, is the communities views on whether the operations of Local Government will be more secure and better for the community by having financial recognition in Australia’s Constitution.  The answer to that question is unequivocally YES.

I have to confess; the Local Government industry here in WA is being lackluster in its advocacy for a YES vote.  If Local Government is committed to winning this referendum Councillors, Councils and WALGA need to take a much higher profile on the issue.  The history of referenda success in Australia demonstrates how easy it is to undermine a YES vote and unfortunately the NO vote campaign is off to a flying start.  These people are skilled and will use the same techniques as many of they did in promoting climate denialism.  If they are successful in getting popular media to give the NO vote the same level of attention as was given to climate denialism the referendum will fail and fail miserably.  This will be a disaster for Local Government because if the referendum fails I predict it will be followed by a High Court challenge to totally undermines the ability of Local Government to continue to provide the services the community currently enjoys.

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2 Responses to Australian Local Government Referendum Threat

  1. Brad Pettitt says:

    Jon
    Well said
    Referendums in Australia are always fraught and I fear we have left the case for YES a bit late
    Brad

  2. dianaryan says:

    Agree with you that Local Govt in WA shows almost no interest in pushing this issue. In fact, I can’t recall anyone else addressing this, other than your blog and I heard Troy Pickard, as WALGA, on radio one time.

    I think Pickard said WALGA is putting up $1m for the national YES campaign, for a total of $10m nationally, but that is a very small amount to try to reach a critical mass of the population – and to reinforce the YES message.

    Do you have any ideas as to why local govt interest in WA is so low on this issue?

    My understanding, based on the Chaplains in Schools issue that brought about concerns of High Court challenges to federal funding for state/local issues (that, in this case, was principally what the Feds wanted to see occur in our schools), is that unless the Constitution is changed to give Local Govt financial recognition, then a lot more things will have to be negotiated through the federal parliament before it can be rolled out (like certain energy efficiency programs, etc).

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