Gagging parliament’s referendum debate

The Gillard government announced earlier this week that it intends to gag debates in the Senate concerning the backlog of legislation awaiting approval next week.

One of the legislative items is the Local Government (Constitution Alteration) Bill 2013, providing the words for the September local government referendum.

Under the gag order, the government will limit debate on this, and other bills, if they have not been passed by 7.30pm on Monday, 24 June.

This announcement adds to the already significant community concern that the government is foisting upon the Australian public a proposed dramatic change to our constitutional balance of powers, with little notice and with funding heavily skewed toward the ‘yes’ case for local government recognition.

In light of this, one can only concur with the sentiments expressed by constitutional lawyer Anne Twomey about the government’s announcement:

any prudent government that had respect for the constitutional system of government would have introduced this referendum bill weeks ago, and ensured that it had ample time for debate. The fact that the government has now allocated A$10 million to support the “Yes” case and only $500,000 to support the “No” case, also gives the impression that it is not terribly keen on a free and robust political discussion on the issues

The proposed referendum allows the Commonwealth to bypass parliamentary scrutiny and the need to operate within its constitutional powers by using grants to local government as a means of fulfilling its desire to gain votes in marginal electorates. Yet what little debate there has been on the referendum bill has not yet addressed this significant constitutional issue in any substantive way. With a gagged debate next week, it is unlikely to do so.



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