Jun 17, 2013

Foundations for the Future: Twenty 13 – Address to ALGA National General Assembly, National Convention Centre

Welcome all.

Some of you I saw last night in the Great Hall at Parliament House at the Australian Council of Local Government dinner.

It was a great night.

And particularly good to join the Prime Minister in congratulating the winners of the National Awards for Local Government.

So let me get straight down to the issue of the moment – constitutional recognition of Local Government.

As Leader of the House of Representatives in a minority government, my job often involves an awful lot of vote wrangling.

But two weeks ago when we voted on a change to recognise Local Government in our Australian Constitution I had nothing to worry about.

Because the vote was almost unanimous.

Indeed, only two members of the House of Representatives’ 150 members voted against the legislation.

It is rare to deal with an issue that enjoys such bipartisan support.

As it should.

Because for at least four decades, Federal Governments of all political persuasions have worked directly in partnership with our 565 local councils.

There’s the Roads to Recovery Program – $1.75 billion in the last five years alone.

There’s the Regional and Local Community Infrastructure Program which we introduced to help keep regional towns and suburbs strong during the Global Financial Crisis.

Then there’s the Regional Development Australia Fund.

The first three rounds alone have invested $380 million in  important community infrastructure – new town halls, sporting and community centres, cycle paths, airport upgrades, revitalising main streets…and much more.

We’ve started announcing the first Round Four projects – so far providing $135 million for projects identified as priorities by local communities.

And then there are the services you provide that we help fund such as aged-care and disability services, business and employment programs, child care.

At Federation in 1901, it was a very different story.

Your job was to do little more than clear the garbage and make sure the dirt roads were well-graded for the horse and cart.

We live today in an entirely different age and it is time that this is recognised in our Constitution.

Yet all of you here today know how hard it is to bring about such a change.

The history of referenda in Australia is a long, sad tale of disappointment.

Forty-four times Australians have been asked to vote in a referendum for  constitutional change.

Only eight times has a referendum been passed.

We face a giant battle.

Last night the Prime Minister announced that the Government will provide funding to support the ‘Yes’ case at the referendum.

Today I confirm that the Government will provide funding to proponents on both sides of the debate to assist them to take their cases to the community.

The Government will offer up to half a million dollars to proponents of the ‘No’ case to put its case to the community.

The two Members who voted against the Bill will be asked to determine the distribution of this funding.

The Government will provide $10 million to the Australian Local Government Association for the ‘Yes’ campaign.

So today, the best message you can take home to your council colleagues is that this referendum will not succeed unless all of you work extremely hard to back it.

You’ll need to talk about the merits of the case whenever you can.

Getting people excited about constitutional change is never going to be easy.

And when people aren’t sure about something, history tells us they tend to vote ‘No’.

You engage more closely with local residents than any other level of government.

Over the next three months you must use all of these communication opportunities to get the message across that this is a long overdue change.

It’s a simple message.

Vote ‘Yes’ for constitutional recognition of local government.

Vote ‘Yes’ to community infrastructure.

Vote ‘Yes’ for a modern Constitution to reflect what our government structures really are.

In short, use everything at your disposal to get the message across that this is a long overdue change.

Many of you have been active already.

Thank you to Mayors Jan Bonde in Burnie Tasmania, John Walsh from the Murrindindi Shire in Victoria, Graeme Lehmann from Somerset Council in Queensland and Ian Carpenter from the City of Greater Geraldton in Western Australia.

You and others have all been selling the message that this is a long overdue piece of national housekeeping.

It is important that we remind people that this modest change will not affect the relationship between Local and State Governments.

State Governments will continue to be responsible for local councils,

There is no hidden agenda.

We are not seeking to take over bin collections in Burnie, Broome and Bundaberg as one commentator alleged.

It is simply granting certainty so that all of you can continue to provide the services and facilities that keep your communities strong and connected.

Enjoy this General Assembly.

Thank you for the opportunity to be with you today.