One should be extremely skeptical of any proposal from the present Government – it is likely to cost more and reduce freedom. So it was with great concern that I noted Simon Crean plans to hold a referendum for the Constitutional recognition of local government with the September 14 election. This follows a letter from Queensland Premier, Campbell Newman, requesting a referendum on the topic.
Before going further, though, it should be noted that local government already has Constitutional recognition: see section 51 of the NSW Constitution; chapter 7 of the Queensland Constitution, Part IIA of the Victorian Constitution, Part 2A of the South Australian Constitution, Part IVA of the Tasmanian Constitution and Part IIIB of the Western Australian Constitution.
We are, after all, a Federation. That is, a union of self-governing states with their own sovereignty (hence each has a Governor representing the Queen).
It is entirely appropriate for local government to be recognised in the Constitutions of each State and not in the Australian Constitution. The United States Constitution does not mention local government. Yes, for example, Article XI of the Constitution of California covers local government. The Constitution of Canada does not mention local government (Canadian provinces have unwritten constitutions except British Columbia which is simply an Act of its Parliament).
By contrast, the non-federal and highly centralised structure of France means that local government is part of La Constitution du 4 Octobre 1958 (Titre XII).
In other words, without re-examining the federal nature of Australia, why is there a prima facie case for local government to be recognised in the Australian Constitution?
The desire for such recognition has long been an aim of the Australian Local Government Association, and was covered in the ‘expert panel’ report of September 2011. That report gave the following reasons for the proposed change:
Including a reference to local government in the Constitution would formally recognise the role it plays in the Australian federal system as the third tier of government. This recognition would enhance the status of local government, in the community and in its dealings with the other two levels of government. Local government would be better able to attract the support and resources it needs, and to develop the new capacities to fulfil its increasingly important role in our system of government. For example, a wider range of people might stand for election as councillors or apply for professional and management positions within local government, and career, trade, training, employment and retention opportunities at all levels might open up. Recognition could also enhance the ability of local councils to advocate the interests of their communities through collaboration with other levels of government. It could thus make a practical difference to local government’s ability to deliver local services and infrastructure, and to its future development as an integral part of the Australian Federation.
These are weasel words. Local government is formally recognised in the Australian federal system in every State Constitution. Do we really want ‘enhanced’ recognition to give our councillors a bigger ego, or to encourage them to ever higher salaries and conditions? Did we all agree to the expansion in the types of activities conducted by local government?
Then in March 2013, the Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition of Local Government handed down its final report. It is notable that it includes a section ‘the case for recognition’ but no section on the case against recognition. It argues that the recognition would ‘remove uncertainty’ in the funding of local government. Yet I haven’t observed any difficulty in local governments ripping off rate holders.
Most disturbingly, the report recommends:
The Preliminary Report supported the continued practice of Parliamentarians drafting and approving the ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ cases for the official referendum pamphlet for financial recognition of local government. It further recommended that, in the event that there is no requirement for a ‘No’ case – that is, if no Parliamentarians vote against a Constitution Alteration bill – there should be an official ‘Yes’ case only.
In other words, the Committee would like the Referendum to be conducted without a ‘no’ case.
Lobby your MP – and vote NO to this proposed referendum. Don’t give the bastards yet another option for taking more of your money.