A hotly contested election is underway for board control of the Municipal Association of Victoria and the biggest issue for the 79 delegates from member councils is what to do with Julia Gillard’s promise to hold a referendum on constitutional recognition of local government.

Incumbent MAV president Bill McArthur along with key Liberal supporter Geoff Gough are currently in Canberra attending a two-day Australian Local Government Association board meeting where ALGA’s referendum position will be finalised. Timing is extremely tight as federal cabinet is expected to announce its final decision on whether to proceed with the referendum in March.

McArthur and Gough have both been sceptics during the constitutional recognition debate and both may be defeated after multiple challengers emerged in the current MAV board election, which concludes on March 1.

McArthur revealed at Wednesday’s MAV presidential candidates forum in Benalla that ALGA is seeking to establish a $10 million commitment for the referendum campaign and that Victoria’s share would be $3.2 million.

Unlike other states such as Queensland and South Australia, the MAV has been dragging the chain on the campaign funding question. Indeed, the Victorian local government sector currently has nothing more than a declared intention to pursue voluntary contributions from MAV members should the PM persuade colleagues she must keep her referendum promise and pose the question on September 14. Other states have firm commitments.

Victoria’s position is absolutely pivotal when you consider the PM is from Victoria, as is Local Government Minister Simon Crean. Victoria and WA are the only two state governments which have formally opposed the proposal and Abbott is on record supporting a specific change to s96 which, as identified in the Expert Panel report, would be amended to read as follows:

“… the Parliament may grant financial assistance to any State or to any local government body formed by State or Territory Legislation on such terms and conditions as the Parliament sees fit.”

Who can argue with the idea Canberra should be able to directly fund a body created by state legislation? Gillard has just done precisely that this week with Victorian hospitals.

One interesting element in the campaign is the fact current MAV director and former ALGA chairman Geoff Lake, a key backer of the conservative ruling clique on the MAV board, aspires to succeed Crean in the federal seat of Hotham when he retires from federal Parliament. There has been talk Crean was previously rolled by cabinet on the constitutional recognition issue.

Lake was ALGA president when the sector nationally embraced the push for constitutional recognition at three-day summit in December 2008; I’m puzzled why his ALP-dominated Monash council has voted to give McArthur an historic six-year term when he is a known sceptic on the constitutional recognition question. It is ALP policy to support constitutional recognition and I’m running for MAV president as an independent explicitly on a pro-referendum platform. A cynic might say it sounds like Crean wants out of the referendum promise and the government is looking to blame a lack of enthusiasm or campaign funding from councils and the states. Victoria has been the worst in this regard, but that could all change with a new MAV board.

Don’t for a moment buy this argument that somehow opposing state governments in WA and Victoria could run an effective “no” campaign along the lines that all federal flood relief, Roads to Recovery funding, school chaplain programs and the like have to go through state government bureaucracies before reaching local councils and the communities they represent. It would also be hard for Tony Abbott to project a more positive image by opposing constitutional recognition and the PM is surely keen to avoid being slammed for breaking yet another election promise.

With nine days of MAV voting left, there is growing momentum behind the idea of making this high-profile contested MAV board election a political catalyst for ensuring Gillard keeps her promise. There is clearly a mood for change; there’s even a chance MAV delegates, many of whom are elderly conservative men from regional councils, may elect a majority of female directors for the first time.

*Stephen Mayne is a Melbourne City councillor and MAV presidential candidate. He was not paid for this item.