Referendum on councils in September

A referendum on the status of local councils in the Australian Constitution will be held in September.
A referendum on the status of local councils in the Australian Constitution will be held in September.

Local governments were created by State legislation and, as such, the Constitution does not recognise their existence, despite the fact that their role has expanded considerably since federation. Local councils and shires have assumed far greater responsibilities over service-delivery in a vast array of areas, including health, childcare, sewerage and road-building.

The move to conduct a referendum came after a Parliamentary committee recently found there was a strong case for recognition of local governments in the Constitution, which would remove uncertainty around federally funded local government programs.

The validity of these programs was cast into doubt by recent landmark High Court decisions questioning the constitutional basis on which Federal funding was made.

Michelle Rowland, chair of the Parliamentary committee, said constitutional recognition was required to allow local governments to continue to provide their wide range of services.

‘The days of local governments doing just roads, rated and rubbish are long gone,’ she said.

‘Local governments are now recognised by the Commonwealth and State governments as ideally positioned to deliver services.’

The question of Constitutional inclusion for councils has been put to voters twice before ” in 1974 and 1988. Both times it was rejected.

However, Ms Rowland said the committee believed there was ‘a good chance of success’ this time.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard has backed the ‘yes’ campaign and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott has indicated he is prepared to support, too.

Ms Gillard said the constitutional change would guard against any court challenge to the Federal Government’s Roads to Recovery program, worth $350 million a year in funding that flows directly to local authorities to spend on road upgrades.

WA Premier Colin Barnett recently told the ABC that WA would support the change, too, ‘so long as it is recognised as a function of the State and does not create new powers for the Commonwealth, which we believe would lead to further duplication of legislation’.