12 April 2012

Constitutional change - Local Government

The April issue of Quadrant magazine has a couple of articles on the current proposals to amend the Australian Constitution.   There is a proposal is to recognise local government, and the other is to include some form of "indigenous recognition" in the Constitution.

Malvern Town Hall
The proposal in relation to "indigenous recognition" has received more publicity, and perhaps I'll leave my musings on this for another time.

One of the articles is by James Spigelman (it's actually an edited version of an address he gave), and is of particular interest as he chaired the Expert Panel  on Constitutional Recognition of Local Government.

In relation to the recognition of local government, the first question to ask is, why bother?   There have been three previous suggestions that this ought to be done, namely in the Constitutional Convention of 1891, and the referenda put forward in 1974 and 1988. The 1891 Constitutional Convention looked at the issue in some detail and the outcome was that local government wasn't mentioned in the Constitution.   Both the 1974 and 1988 referenda were lost, with a "yes" vote of only 33.61% in the latter case. 

The expert panel had 18 members (rather more than Spigelman anticipated, it seems from his article.)  These included "experts" such as Senator Bob Brown and Tony Windsor and, according to Spigelman, most of the rest had current or past associations with local government.  The local government lobby ran a campaign focussed on empowering the Commonwealth to make direct grants to local government (at present there is some doubt about its ability to do this, in view of the decision of the High Court relating to the fiscal stimulus package (Pape v Commissioner of Taxation)). In Speigelman's words,  "...perhaps not surprisingly, because of the composition of the panel, this was the option which the panel eventually put forward".

However, the tone of Spigelman's article suggests that, perhaps, he didn't support this recommendation quite as strongly as some of the other members of the panel.  He comments that although the majority concluded that there was a reasonable prospect of success in a referendum in 2013 (if there was, amongst other things, a "nationally funded education campaign about the Constitution generally"), other members (a minority) made a different judgement.

In view of the lack of whole-hearted support from the expert panel (notwithstanding its composition), and that any "no" case would stress the creeping centralism almost certainly inherent  in any such proposal, one wonders whether  in the current political climate the present Federal government will fulfil its 2010 agreement with the Greens and push ahead with a referendum in 2013 on this matter.

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