Judging from the quality of speeches by House of Representatives members yesterday, the ‘yes’ case for including councils and shires in Section 96 of the Australian Constitution is becoming distinctly shallow and lacking in persuasive argument.
Perhaps the most disingenuous of assertions for ratification of a direct federal‑local financial relationship is the notion that the Australian Constitution, being over a century old, is necessarily outdated and must be changed, in line with economic and social policy fashions that strike politicians as being interesting at the time.
This misses the point.
A constitution is an enduring rule book of political engagement, designed to prevent the worst excesses of political discretion and to anchor political expectations about permissible policy action. These are timeless principles, and the Australian public should remain vigilant against any arguments for constitutional change that primarily serve to empower politicians.
As those opposing local government financial recognition have stated, the referendum proposal fundamentally represents a desire by the Canberra political class to dictate any terms and conditions they think fit as a condition of funding, meaning unprecedented federal interference in local community affairs.
Parliamentary speakers for a referendum ‘yes’ vote provided emotionally charged narratives of impoverished local governments across the countryside unable to provide elementary services. For example, federal Member for Throsby Stephen Jones claimed that one of the councils in his electorate (Shellharbour City Council) has a ‘relatively low ratepayer base’ and ‘so a council like Shellharbour relies on the grants it can gain from other sources.’
Contradicting Mr Jones’ depiction of Shellharbour as something of a financially impoverished council, the council’s latest Annual Report (p. 83) clearly indicates that it is self‑sufficient. Only 28 per cent of its recurrent revenues are drawn from state and federal grants.
In contrast to this largely inaccurate image of councils everywhere crying poor, it should be recognised that the kinds of funding to be provided by the commonwealth (and associated funding conditions) would not necessarily accord with the genuine needs or interests of people in local communities.
Indeed, the federal Member for Greenway (Michelle Rowland) raised the spectre of substantial federal pork barrelling of local councils in future if the referendum was carried:
‘As someone whose first experience in public office was as a local councillor, I find few things give me greater satisfaction than delivering on things that make a tangible difference to people’s lives, such as a new sporting field, a new playground, a new girl guides hall and even a new long‑jump pit.’
So there you have it: federal politicians love the idea of formally inserting local government into the Constitution for the sake of more photo opportunities, in the hope of pulling more votes their way.
Everything else, such as the prevention of federal micromanagement of councils and the need for public spending efficiency, comes across as being secondary for those arguing in favour of Canberra in every town hall.