Labor MPs in push for referendum on local government

NSW Local Government Association president Keith Rhoades.
NSW Local Government Association president Keith Rhoades. Contributed

SEVERAL Federal Labor MPs have recommended a referendum on the constitutional recognition of local government be completed this year, despite warnings the vote may not be successful.

After a public hearing on the issue last week, a joint parliamentary committee inquiry has brought down a preliminary report recommending a national vote be held in 2013.

Coalition MPs argue that the report, which has been brought down even before the public submission period for the inquiry has been completed, could jeopardise the vote.

Chaired by New South Wales MP Michelle Rowland, the committee recommended the Gillard Government start negotiations immediately with states and territories in a bid to get a successful vote later this year.

But the recommendations come only days after senior representatives of the Australian Local Government Association warned the political environment associated with the Federal Election this year might jeopardise the vote.

ALGA vice-president and president of the NSW Local Government Association Keith Rhoades told the committee last week the election, and a belated decision in a High Court case, may mean the government has missed the boat for this year.

Mr Rhoades said a delayed decision on the High Court chaplains' case - which challenged the constitutionality of Commonwealth funding programs - could jeopardise the referendum, which would rely on councils being recognised for direct financial payments.

The vote would mean the majority of councils' funding would not need to be channelled through state government coffers.

And while most state and territory governments support the idea of the proposal, the Commonwealth has not begun negotiations with the second tier of government.

Since the committee's report was released Thursday morning, a Griffith University constitutional law expert, Professor A.J. Brown, has welcomed the proposal.

Prof Brown was a member of the Federal Government's 2011 Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition of Local Government, and spoke during the public hearing last week.

He said a 2013 vote was an historic opportunity to improve the mechanics and operations of Australia's federal system.

But several Coalition MPs and Senators, who also sat on the committee, released a dissenting report to the recommendations.

The conservative committee members said while the change was worthy of support, a well-informed public would be essential to ensure the vote succeeded.

"Coalition members therefore consider that prior to a change to the Constitution being put to the people, parliament should take all reasonable steps to maximise the likelihood that all voting Australians understand the questions," the dissenting report reads.

Topics:  australian government, labor, local government association, politics, referendum



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