Professor Alan Fenna, from Curtin University’s John Curtin Institute of Public Policy, described it as unnecessary and as a potential blow to Australian Federalism.
The Federal Government proposal has the support of the WA Local Government Association.
The proposal pitches for consensus to hold a referendum in conjunction with the federal election on September 14.
If Australians vote ‘Yes’, 17 words would be added to section 96 of the Constitution, which deals with financial assistance to the states.
The new section will read: ‘During a period of 10 years after the establishment of the Commonwealth and thereafter until the Parliament otherwise provides, the Parliament may grant financial assistance to any state, or to any local government body formed by a law of a state.’
Federal Infrastructure Minister Anthony Albanese described the change as ‘small but important’ and said it was about recognising ‘modern reality,’ reflecting the fact that the Commonwealth had partnered with local government to deliver local roads, sporting fields, libraries, childcare and community services.
Two previous referendums to include local government in the Constitution, in 1974 and 1988, were soundly defeated, but a Nielsen poll last week showed 65 per cent of Australians support the constitutional recognition, with 69 per cent support in WA.
WALGA president Troy Pickard said a positive result would provide certainty for a range of Commonwealth-funded projects.
City of Bayswater Mayor Terry Kenyon said he hoped the referendum would succeed but admitted he did not hold much hope.
‘It’s a big ask; it has failed twice before and I’m not sure it has had enough public exposure,’ he said.
‘What it does, it gives local government a direct line to Canberra and it guarantees funding. I think that’s important.
‘I know some people disagree with the move, I know Colin Barnett has spoken against it before, but I think local governments are closer to the people than any other level of government and that recognition is needed.’
Stirling Mayor David Boothman also welcomed the referendum.
‘Overall (it) is a positive step to recognise the ground-roots type of activities local government facilitates within our communities all over Australia,’ Cr Boothman said.
However. Professor Fenna, a former president of the Australian Political Studies Association and an expert on the Constitution and Constitutional law, strongly criticised the move.
‘Almost by definition, as soon as you give local government any kind of status in the Commonwealth Constitution, you are by definition, weakening the states since it is a major area of state jurisdiction, and the states have already been massively weakened,’ Prof Fenna said.
‘What it’s doing is not only weakening the states in principle by giving local government recognition in the federal Constitution, but it’s also weakening both of the governments in practice by applying that very powerful Section 96 spending power to local government as it extends to the states.’
While he acknowledged an argument could be made for the benefits of the change, Prof Fenna was quick to add that the disadvantages far outweighed the advantages.
‘The Commonwealth can always revert to what it should be doing in the first place, which is transferring the money via the State Governments rather than giving it directly to the local government.
‘I don’t see a lot of problems in the status quo, and I see yet another blow to Australian federalism with the potential reform.’