Eyebrows were raised last week when Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus ignored the much-touted Pape and Williams High Court cases when presenting the local government constitutional wording legislation in the House of Representatives.
After all, the Australian Local Government Association has not been hesitant to claim that direct commonwealth funding to councils and shires, bypassing the states, continues to be imperilled by the recent cases. This is despite the federal Parliament passing the fundamentally undemocratic Financial Framework Legislation Amendment Act (No. 3) 2012 last year, in response to the legal challenge to direct federal funding of local government authorities.
In further evidence that the Gillard government itself is backing away from this argument, in Senate Estimates last week Minister Kate Lundy stated explicitly that the High Court cases are not a basis for its advocacy of constitutional change. An extract of the exchange between Senator Lundy, and Liberal Senator Scott Ryan, on 30 May 2013 is as follows:
Senator Ryan: … In the consideration of this proposed wording, one of the justifications for the referendum is that the Williams decision has put the funding power the commonwealth has direct to local government not using section 96 in doubt …
Senator Lundy: I am happy to correct you: no, it is not one of our justifications at all.
It is imperative that the government now comes clean with the public, and explain the reasons for its unprecedented power grab over Australia’s 565 councils and shires.