Beyond the nearly $20 billion deficit and other headline programs, there was a bitter pill of democracy in last night’s Budget. According to the Budget papers the government is going to spend $55.6 million in the lead up to the September 14 referendum to Constitutionally recognise local government, of which $11.6 million will be a backdoor advertising push for the ‘yes’ case. According to page 246 of Budget Paper 2:
The Government will provide $55.6 million over two years to conduct a referendum on the financial recognition of local government in the Australian Constitution … The Australian Electoral Commission will receive $44.0 million over two years to conduct the referendum and the Department of Regional Australia, Local Government, the Arts and Sport will receive $11.6 million to undertake a national civics education campaign to provide information to the general public on the referendum and reform process.
Education on civics is fine. But I seriously doubt ‘a national civics education campaign’ will be anything other than the importance of three levels of government which is a dodgy way of saying – shouldn’t we include local government in the Constitution as well?
Some have speculated that this referendum is a sop to the Greens and Independents. But it is clear that the Gillard government wants it to be successful. More disturbingly the so-called Federalist Liberal Party also wants it to get up. Should we be surprised that politicians want to undermine the rules that limit the excesses of their power? Probably not.
In a democracy they are free to make that argument. But unless there is clear oversight of how this $11.6 million is spent it is highly likely to be an abuse of taxpayer’s money that should be challenged in the High Court.