The biggest national local government event in recent history wrapped up in Canberra today as more than 1000 delegates at the 2013 Australian Local Government Association national general assembly headed back to their respective shires and councils. But the argy bargy continues.
The event started on Sunday night when about 200 mayors and lord mayors had dinner with Prime Minister Julia Gillard, Local Government Minister Anthony Albanese and several other cabinet ministers in Parliament’s Great Hall. The highlight was Barnaby Joyce and Albo hugging on stage, signalling the much-needed bipartisan support that is needed to succeed in a referendum campaign.
The leaders of the main political parties traditionally address the general assembly, and it was at this event two years ago that Opposition Leader Tony Abbott made his solid pledge to back constitutional recognition for local government provided it was a minimalist and practical change that secured future federal funding without undermining a state’s ability to create and sack councils.
After then-minister Simon Crean procrastinated for two years, that is precisely what Albanese did when he reclaimed the local government portfolio in March this year and proposed adding just 17 words to the constitution.
Some state governments were always going to oppose such a move to protect their turf so that the federal government could not directly fund councils without so-called double handling by state bureaucrats. The Victorians have led the charge on this, culminating in an extraordinary beat-up in the Herald Sun on Monday, where the page one splash screamed “SACK PROOF” with a double-page spread plus an editorial urging a vote against.
The anti-government Institute of Public Affairs dancing bears plus a couple of washed up city-based Liberals, Peter Reith and Nick Minchin, have been leading the hysterical against campaign and are clearly looking to get on the government teat for funding.
However, their campaign was completely ineffective because the House of Representatives voted 133-2 in favour of the minimalist amendment. Dennis Jensen and Alex Hawke do not constitute a parliamentary groundswell.
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While Albanese told the conference he had worked extremely hard with Abbott and Joyce to secure bipartisan support, his efforts with the states and the Senate have been less deft. In denouncing the Herald Sun hysteria on Monday, he professed to not even knowing the name of Victoria’s local government minister, former Shepparton mayor Jeanette Powell.
Joyce, Powell’s National Party colleague and federal local government spokesman, turned up at 4.30pm yesterday to deliver delegates a rocket, complaining councillors had failed to counter state government lobbying of Coalition senators. Joyce professed to have burned up political capital during ongoing screaming matches with colleagues and then bluntly declared: “If it wasn’t for me, the Coalition would be opposing the referendum.”
The funding question is interesting. The Ku Klux Klan won’t be given equal funding to oppose the referendum on indigenous recognition, which has bipartisan support to be put during the next Parliament. However, Albanese erred in announcing just $500,000 in funding for the “no” case before the Senate had voted. This disrespect for the Senate will trigger more floor-crossings and no-shows by Coalition senators later today.
The ALGA has appointed veteran advertising guru Digby Nancarrow as campaign director. After signing the contract on Monday he was singularly impressive during two hours of presentations and panels yesterday afternoon.
Having worked on the successful Republican No campaign in 1999, Nancarrow understands what works. And with $20 million to play with, plus 564 councils from across Australian on board, this should be a reasonably straightforward exercise.
Albanese honed in on the winning line of the campaign when he returned to the ALGA general assembly this morning to announce another $150 million worth of federal grants for council infrastructure projects across Australia. Over the coming 86 days, voters will be reminded of the thousands of pools, libraries, park, roads and sporting fields that are owned by councils but paid for with direct federal grants.
With the High Court moving determinedly towards declaring unconstitutional the beloved “Roads to Recovery” program approved by then-ministers Reith and Minchin and announced by John Howard in March 2001, it is hard to see voters opposing the amendment and consciously shutting down direct access to Canberra cash. Surely nobody wants even higher council rates.
*Stephen Mayne is a City of Melbourne councillor and was not paid for this item
CORRECTION: The original version of this story stated Peter Reith had no local government experience. Cr Reith was a volunteer local politician in Phillip Island from 1977 until 1982, including a stint as shire president in 1980-81.