When Big Media Aren’t the Biggest

The Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Local Government Minister Anthony Albanese today joined the Brisbane Lord Mayor to announce a referendum that will for the first time recognise local government in the Australian Constitution.

While the actual wording of the referendum question is yet to be announced1, it is likely to be based around the most-favoured proposal of the Expert Panel on Constitution Recognition of Local Government, which was for financial recognition to allow the Federal Government to directly provide grants to local governments. The Government already provides these grants, and has for more than a decade, but their validity has been called into question by two recent High Court decisions that explicit and specific constitutional mandate was needed for Federal Government spending. Crikey published a neat primer on the issue in March.

The referendum is less about giving local government any new powers or changing the role of the states or even enshrining the existence of local governments in the constitution than it is about “Removing the doubt about constitutional validity of direct grants”.2

While the exact wording of the referendum question is not yet known, it will likely seek to amend Section 96 of the Contitution from “the Parliament may grant financial assistance to any State on such terms and conditions as the Parliament thinks fit” to “the Parliament may grant financial assistance to any State or Local Government on such terms and conditions as the Parliament thinks fit.”1 This is a grand constitutional change of precisely two words3, made for entirely pragmatic reasons, that will change very little in the way Australian governments of all breeds operate.

The main argument against the amendment is about the rights of the states. In reality, this change does nothing to alter the ability of the states to constitute, change, and sack councils as they always have. Nor does it challenge or further confuse Australia’s federal structure, as an article in today’s Crikey would have us believe.

Australasian Federal Referendum July 1899

Australasian Federal Referendum July 1899

  1. The draft bill Constitution Alteration (Local Government) 2013 sets out that the following words will be inserted after ‘any State’: “or to any local government body formed by a law of a State,”. This is an even more iron-clad guarantee of local government powers being reserved for the states [] []
  2. See the Expert Panel’s final report, page 6. []
  3. Now more than two, as the other footnotes explain. []