The upcoming referendum asking Australians if they want local government recognised in the constitution has, like previous attempts, been met with confusion and the glazing of eyes.
Though the odds are stacked against it getting public support, it does offer an opportunity to examine the state and federal governments’ tenuous relationship and how they administer our taxes. According to Shipra Chordia, director of the Federalism Project at the University of NSW, around 80 per cent of the federal $2.7 billion budget to local government is channelled through the states. ‘The remaining 20 per cent is direct funding from the federal to the local level, and is used to finance popular programs, such as the Roads to Recovery program.’
Without a clear constitutional power to directly fund local government, we are told by proponents, a significant number of federal to council programs such as the Roads to Recovery program might be put in jeopardy by future High Court challenges.
But would recognising local government undermine the principles of federalism or our Constitution?
There is little doubt that such changes are a threat to the states’ powers and relevance. This is primarily because the feds could bypass states and presumably expand on funding directly.
And similarly, opponents say councils with more power could perhaps apply taxes instead of rates, while ‘spot’ fines could have more legal legitimacy and carry harsher penalties. Also it would be harder to challenge councils in the federal courts.
It’s been said all government tiers exist to prevent local dictatorships and corruption, and it’s widely recognised to be critical that no level of government has too much power.
Council’s purpose was originally intended to provide essential services and maintenance, and opponents say it should not extend beyond roads, rates and rubbish. Others say councils’ roles are, in practice, much more.
Past and present poor performances by NSW Labor and coalition parties make a good argument for change, as does this region’s lack of funding relative to other local government areas. Who wouldn’t want better local governance and a streamlined, less complicated bureaucracy? The referendum will be included with the September election, and the amendment’s wording has just become public at http://regional.gov.au. Also see http://localgovrecognition.gov.au.
Hans Lovejoy, editor