By Mehroz Siraj
Local city councils across Australia have voiced their vocal support for the referendum that the prime minister had called last week, seeking constitutional recognition for Australia’s local government bodies.
Last week, Prime Minister Julia Gillard had called a referendum on the constitutional recognition of local governments on election day.
Councilors from across the country have unanimously flagged the prospects of launching awareness campaigns within their respective jurisdictions.
The campaigns would educate voters by telling them that many of the facilities that their local councils were able to provide, would not have been possible in the absence of funding from the federal government.
“Section 96 of the Constitution allows the Commonwealth to fund the states. All we’re looking for in this referendum, essentially, is to add the words ‘and local government’,” Queanbeyan City Council mayor, Tim Overall told ABC Radio on May 09.
Fiona White-Hartig, the mayor of the Roebourne City Council in Western Australia’s Pilbara region, said that local councils in that state were overjoyed with the referendum announcement.
However, she recalled that the idea of including local governments in the constitution had been defeated at previous referendums.
Local bodies were planning massive awareness campaigns to tell their residents about the funding that they had received from the federal government, she said.
The campaigns would highlight the need for maintaining good working relationships between local councils and the federal government, Fiona said.
This referendum should have been called in much earlier, according to constitutional lawyer George Williams.
“The question is, even given how late it’s been left, can it pass,” he questioned.
“I think, Tony Abbott and the Opposition really hold the cards. If they support it, it does have prospects of success,” he added.
“If they don’t then my view is the referendum should be pulled,” he mentioned, suggesting that the entire situation would become politically untenable if the Coalition won the September elections and did not support the constitutional recognition of local governments.
Many experts, including former Howard government minister Peter Reith believe that there was no need for the prime minister to announce this referendum on election day.
According to Reith, the referendum was not required because at the moment the federal government and the local bodies had good working relationships.
Hence there was no point in bringing the contentious issue into debate when the federal election was just a few months away, he said.
The announcement of this referendum came weeks after the federal government decided to put on hold its plans for another referendum about the constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians.
The government believed that it did not have enough support in parliament that would allow the passage of the referendum motion.
However, the prime minister was under no illusions about the need for the constitutional recognition of local government bodies.
“I will be asking Australians on the 14th of September to vote yes to communities, yes to local government,” Prime Minister Julia Gillard said earlier this week.
If the referendum was accepted by the Australian people, it would make it easier for local councils to get funding from the Federal government, Mayor Overall said.