You would hope something as important as a referendum would bring on constructive debate. You’d also hope it would be a time for clarity, not fear-mongering. Sadly, we’ve seen little sense or clarity this week in the opinion pages of The Australian.
So, let’s get the facts straight.
Recognising the financial relationship between the Commonwealth and Local Government sector simply recognises an existing reality. Drive around your suburb or town and there’s almost certainly a town hall, a sports oval, a new wing to the local library, or a rejuvenated main street that was built with Commonwealth help.
It’s hardly new. It’s something that’s been going on for a good four decades. Even the local road you’re driving along was probably funded under the Roads to Recovery program which, in the last five years alone, has pumped some $1.75 billion into local councils for road building and repairs.
When our Constitution was signed on 1 January 1901, Australia was a very different place. Keeping streets clear of garbage and the roads well-graded for horses and carriages was the prime job of a local council. They were little more than an administrative tool of State Governments to manage the most basic of services.
Skip forward 112 years, click onto your local council’s web-site, and you’ll see the enormous range of services they provide these days. There are childcare and employment services, aged-care hostels, disability programs, arts festivals and galleries, business incentive schemes, tourist centres…the list goes on and on.
Located smack bang in the middle of the communities they serve, no-one could argue that local councils are not best placed to provide those services. And it’s hardly a surprise that many of those activities have been funded for many years at least in part by the Commonwealth.
So it is now time for our Constitution to recognise the modern reality of local government in the 21st century. When voters visit their polling booth this September, they will be invited to vote ‘yes’ to 17 additional words to our existing constitution.
Here they are in italics:
Financial assistance to States and local government bodies. During a period of ten years after the establishment of the Commonwealth and thereafter until the Parliament otherwise provides, the Parliament may grant financial assistance to any State, or to any local government body formed by a law of a State.
Whatever the conspiracy theorist might argue, this is not a Commonwealth attempt to take over the States. Under our Constitution, State Governments are and will stay responsible for local councils. The referendum is not seeking any change to this arrangement.
All it seeks to do is formally acknowledge the fact that some council services and activities from time to time receive Commonwealth help. It is a simple piece of national housekeeping that will enshrine the Australian people’s right to benefit from the funding programs that help keep our towns and suburbs strong and connected.
This is particularly important for those who live in regional Australia. While I have many differences of opinion with Coalition Local Government spokesperson Barnaby Joyce, on this referendum issue we will unite to campaign for a “Yes” vote.