Referendum sparks debate

Young umpires Ryan Kovalevs, Kane Hughes, Rhys Turner and Leigh Retallack.
Young umpires Ryan Kovalevs, Kane Hughes, Rhys Turner and Leigh Retallack.

The proposal, as put forward by the Federal Government, has the support of the local government sector in WA, including the City of Stirling and the WA Local Government Association.

However, constitution and constitutional law expert Alan Fenna, of Curtin University’s John Curtin Institute of Public Policy and a former president of the Australian Political Studies Association, described it as unnecessary and a potential blow to Australian federalism.

The proposal pitches for consensus to hold a referendum in conjunction with the Federal election on September 14.

It would ask Australians to vote yes, or no, on the issue. If Australians vote yes, 17 words would be added to section 96 of the Constitution, which covers financial assistance to the states.

The new section would 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.’

Two previous referendums to include local government in the Constitution, in 1974 and 1988, were both soundly defeated.

But a Nielsen Poll conducted last week showed 65 per cent of Australians supported constitutional recognition of local government, with 69 per cent behind the move in WA and majority support across all states.

Federal Minster for Regional Development and Local Government Anthony Albanese described the change as ‘small but important’.

He said it was about recognising ‘modern reality,’ reflecting the fact the Commonwealth partnered with local government to deliver local roads, sports fields, libraries, childcare and community services.

WALGA president Troy Pickard said a positive result would provide certainty for a Commonwealth-funded projects.

Stirling Mayor David Boothman welcomed the referendum.

‘Overall a referendum to consider local government in the Constitution is a positive step to recognise the ground roots-type of activities local government facilitates within our communities all over Australia,’ Cr Boothman said.

Professor Fenna disagreed.

‘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.

While he acknowledged an argument could be made for the benefits of the change, he was quick to add the disadvantages far outweigh 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 government 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.’