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Govt massaging the truth on local government referendum

The Gillard government is pressing ahead with its referendum on local government; a draft amendment was issued last week. But is it being straight with the public on what the change would actually mean?

It looks as if the Gillard government is serious about pushing ahead with a referendum alongside the federal election, to change the constitution in relation to local government. Local Government Minister Anthony Albanese released the proposed draft of the amendment last week.

There have been two previous referendum questions on local government, both defeated: one in 1974 that was broadly similar to this one, and one in 1988 that was completely different, in that it just “recognised” local government but didn’t alter anyone’s financial powers.

Yesterday The Australian Financial Review reported a Nielsen poll showing 65% in favour  — but not actually in favour of the government’s proposal, just in favour of “recognising local government in the Constitution”.

That would have been an accurate description of the Hawke government’s proposal, back in 1988 (which was heavily defeated). It proposed to recognise local government, but not to give the Commonwealth additional powers. The current question is completely different: there’s no explicit recognition, but there is a new power, for Canberra to fund local government directly, on such conditions as it thinks fit.

So the support that Nielsen found shouldn’t be taken too seriously. The usual pattern in referendum campaigns is that support plummets once debate gets properly underway and people realise (or, depending on your point of view, are fooled into believing) that there’s more to the question than the government is letting on.

It’s not coincidental that the few referendum questions that have been approved (the last ones were in 1977) have generally been those that can’t be represented as increasing federal power. Albanese’s draft is clearly not in that category.

It’s not only the supporters of the local government change who have been misrepresenting things. One of its opponents, the Institute of Public Affairs, argues that it “is at odds with the will of the Australian community, expressed in two previous referendums”. But only the Whitlam government’s 1974 proposal was at all comparable to this one.

Many people dislike local government, so it’s an understandable temptation for opponents of the referendum to try to latch onto that. But the real problem isn’t giving local government a status that it doesn’t deserve; the problem is messing up the lines of financial responsibility in the way that the federal government has already done to the states. As I blogged recently:

Now the government wants to extend this mess to cover local government as well … Sensible constitutional revision would start by restricting the scope of section 96, not by expanding it … If federalism is going to work properly, then those that spend the money should as far as possible be responsible for raising it.”

Which brings us to the remarkable disingenuousness of the government’s argument. Albanese says (correctly) that the amendment would only add 17 words to the constitution. He recites the text of section 96, up to and including the proposed change — and then inserts a full stop. Constitutional law professor Anne Twomey takes up the story:

Yes, there was a full stop at the end and the phrase ‘on such terms and conditions as the Parliament thinks fit’ had magically disappeared. Was it a bit of spin by a media adviser who thought it might be clever not to mention that the funding to local government would be tied up by burdensome and intrusive conditions? Or was it simply ignorance?”

No doubt tongue in cheek, Twomey raises the possibility that:

Perhaps they meant it. Perhaps the lasting gift of the Gillard government will be terminating the Commonwealth’s ability to place terms and conditions on its grants.”

As the draft bill makes clear, the government has no intention of giving up its power to hamstring the states; the whole purpose of the amendment is to extend that power to local government. But nor does the omission of the crucial words seem to be just a casual error (it’s repeated here).

The fact that the government feels the need to so clumsily disguise the actual effect of the amendment suggests that it also doesn’t take seriously the claims of overwhelming support. The referendum’s only hope for success is to be slipped past as a bit of uncontroversial housekeeping. Its chances don’t look good.

6
  • 1
    JRAPQQ
    Posted Tuesday, 21 May 2013 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

    This proposal is more of the same spin as everything else this band of Gillardians deliver. Being in power has become the end game, and if “We” (those same Gillardians) can’t have that power “we” will make things as horrible as possible for those who replace us and those who vote us out - overlooking that they could be back in power one day. Democracy - the worst form of Government there is - except for all the others (Churchill)

  • 2
    Christopher Nagle
    Posted Tuesday, 21 May 2013 at 7:45 pm | Permalink

    Dammit, we already have too much governance and in particular, far too much unproductive white collar bureacracy.

    I want to see local government given back to people who actually do stuff, like maintain local infrastructure and planning and give all the bureaucratic governance back to the state government to look after, within its existing admin budgets.

    The government sector is already bloated with bureaucrats. Why give them another independent sector to play with?

  • 3
    beachcomber
    Posted Tuesday, 21 May 2013 at 9:22 pm | Permalink

    I find it offensive that Local Government could be recognised in the Constitution before the Indigenous Owners of our land.
    Australia is the most over governed country on the planet. We need fewer politicians than we have. Entrenching a third tier of Government in the Constitution just makes it harder to rationalise our system of Government in the future.
    Whilst the plight of people that we dispossessed, poisoned, infected and massacred remains ignored? The injustices, exploitation, and disinterest which we have inflicted upon them for 2 centuries remains ignored?
    Unless there is a simultaneous Referendum to recognise the First Owners in our Constitution, and it receives bipartisan support, there is no Referendum that I could support at the next election.

  • 4
    AR
    Posted Tuesday, 21 May 2013 at 10:38 pm | Permalink

    Can we include a referendum question on the abolition of the States? That would get my vote.

  • 5
    Zarathrusta
    Posted Wednesday, 22 May 2013 at 7:43 am | Permalink

    It is misleading to day the 1988 local government referendum was heavily defeated. The question on the ballot paper was along the lines of: “Do you support constitutional recognition of local government and freedom of religion?”

    Most people rightly rejected the unqualified freedom of religion question and were given no choice but to vote down local government with it. Australians we’re livid about the two unrelated questions being combined.

  • 6
    Charles Richardson
    Posted Friday, 24 May 2013 at 11:04 am | Permalink

    I don’t know where you got that idea, Zarathustra: local government was a separate question in the 1988 referendum. Freedom of religion was part of a general question about “rights and freedoms”, including trial by jury and just terms for property acquisition. You can see all the questions at the AEC website.

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