Past objections to Canberra in every town hall relevant today

Aiming to redesign Australian federalism at the stroke of a pen, former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam in 1974 put to the people, in a referendum, the following proposals for constitutional amendment:

s.51(ivA.) [the Commonwealth Parliament has power to make laws with respect to] The borrowing of money by the Commonwealth for local government bodies.

s.96A. The Parliament may grant financial assistance to any local government body on such terms and conditions as the Parliament thinks fit.

Leading the referendum campaign for the then Liberal‑Country Party Opposition, against the proposed constitutional recognition of local government, Billy Snedden stated:

Once that centralism is achieved we will find that the grant of money will have a whole series of conditions attached to it which will deprive local government of its own freedom of action, and some bureaucrat in Canberra will decide the way in which local government ought to conduct its affairs.

In 1988, former Prime Minister Bob Hawke put to the public another referendum proposal for local government constitutional recognition:

s.119A Each State shall provide for the establishment and continuance of a system of local government, with local government bodies elected in accordance with the laws of a State and empowered to administer, and make by-laws for, their respective areas in accordance with the laws of the State.

In addition to pointing out the constitutional vagueness of this provision, the Liberal‑National Coalition Official ʻNoʼ case document indicated:

Labor is threatening the future of local government with this proposal. It will give Canberra an interfering foot in the door … [and] … give more power to the federal government at the expense of the states. It could pave the way to regional government responsible directly to Canberra, not the states.

Whilst the details of the latest referendum proposal will be released by the Gillard government shortly, it is possible it could look more like the Whitlam 1974 proposal than the Hawke 1988 proposal.

The arguments waged against the 1974 and 1988 referendum proposal were as relevant then as they are today. Giving Canberra the green light to flood town halls with Section 96 grants would further sideline constitutionally sovereign states, and impose unprecedented federal influence upon councils and shires throughout the country.


Local government constitutional recognition: the elites versus the rest of us

In a week marked by numerous diversions from the looming federal budget mess, Prime Minister Julia Gillard has announced that the question of financial recognition of local government will be put to the people in a constitutional referendum at the September election.

The Gillard government is acutely aware that Australians are rightly suspicious of proposals to change the Constitution, the basic rulebook of our national political life.

But for Gillard to suggest this proposal as a ‘modest’ change not only begs the question ‘why pursue it in the first place?,’ especially given the federal government already shuffles billions of taxpayers’ dollars to councils and shires, but fits awkwardly with the general profile of supporters for local government constitutional recognition, who in policy aspiration terms typically don’t do modesty well.

Early indications suggest that this latest agenda for constitutional change is most fervently supported by a quadrangle of political and associated elites:

  • Labor Party: Contrary to Local Government Minister Anthony Albanese’s statement that local government constitutional recognition is about ‘investing in our future’, for Labor this proposal is about investing in its Whitlamite past in attempts to sideline the states.
  • Greens Party: Financial recognition for local government in the Constitution will serve Green politicians nicely, as this would give greater confidence to federal balance‑of‑power Greens to secure top tax dollars for their Green political brethren at the local government level.
  • Local government lobbies: The Australian Local Government Association (ALGA), which already has an observer seat at the COAG table, state‑based local government associations, mayors and shire presidents can weaken local financial scrutiny by ratepayers, once they permanently live on the drip‑feed of federal funding.
  • Lawyers: If this referendum succeeds it would provide another nice ‘make‑work’ opportunity for government solicitors to entrench Canberra control over local finances and services, and referendum success here will stoke hopes by progressive lawyers for further, radical constitutional amendments in the future.

The eagerness of the elites to support local government constitutional recognition should serve as a warning for voters against supporting an immodest tinkering to a Constitution that has generally served our country well.


Canberra council grab a disaster for democracy and rates


“Constitutional recognition of local government will lead to a federal takeover of local laws, lead to rate increases, expansion of bad and petty laws and corrode Australian democracy,” said Tim Wilson, policy director at free market think tank, the Institute of Public Affairs.

The Institute of Public Affairs is strongly opposed to constitutional recognition, because it will:

  • lead to creeping Canberra control of local services through funding agreements.
  • undermine the role of the states and their oversight of local government.
  • stop states from removing corrupt councils and amalgamating inefficient ones.
  • lead to rate rises from councils without state government oversight.
  • increase the volume of petty and intrusive laws into people’s lives and businesses.

“Australia should be governed from local communities-up, not Canberra-down,” Mr Wilson said.

“This referendum is about governing bin collections for Broome, Buderim and Burnie from the Prime Minister’s Canberra office.”

“With every single federal dollar comes strings attached, this plan is about centralising more power in Canberra and further away from local communities. Local government rules and regulations, from planning applications to caring for local parks, will be driven by Canberra.”

“The referendum is a rehashing of Gough Whitlam’s failed attempt to bypass the states and promote a level of government that is easier to control from the Prime Minister’s office.”

“Scrapping state government oversight of local government will create fiefdoms for local kingmakers and petty bureaucrats.”

“Often state government restraints stop significant rate rises, once local government sits separately they will raise rates and increase costs to families.”

“Local governments are already the source of the most intrusive rules and regulations into people’s lives from stopping kite flying in parks, to tying community street parties up in red tape and destroying community festivals through excessive food handling regulations. Constitutional recognition will make it worse.”

“If this referendum is successful the level of government closest to Australian families will be taken over by the one most distant and disconnected. It will be a disaster for Australian democracy,” Mr Wilson said.

For media and comment: Tim Wilson, policy director, 0417 356 165


The local government referendum is worse than you think

My Sunday Age column this week discusses what’s really going on with the local government referendum:

Don’t listen to what Canberra says. The local government referendum has nothing to do with local communities or anything like that. It’s a power play – part of a long-running campaign by the Commonwealth to free its spending decisions from parliamentary scrutiny and undermine the states.

The real story is the terrible Financial Framework Legislation Amendment Bill (No 3) 2012, passed by parliament in June. Read the whole column to find out why. The IPA is the only organisation talking about how bad this obscurely titled bill is. Legal Rights Project Director Simon Breheny wrote this piece about the bill when it was first passed.


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