What You’ll Actually Be Voting For

This article appeared in the Adelaide Advertiser on 26 June 2013 as part of the newspaper’s debate on the proposed local government referendum. The No case is presented by Cory Bernardi below.

The decision by Labor to proceed with the constitutional referendum on local government recognition should disappoint supporters and opponents alike.

Supporters will lament a process that has almost certainly doomed the proposal to its third defeat in three decades. Opponents are justifiably angry that the Federal Government has tried to “rig the referendum” by funding the Yes campaign with tens of millions of taxpayer dollars, while denying any substantial financial support to retain the status quo.

This is an unprecedented attempt to manipulate the outcome by abusing the trappings of office and is justification enough not to trust the government with the increased power that the proposed change would provide.

Our Constitution is the roadmap of our democracy. Making changes to our founding document will always have consequences that require serious and deliberate consideration before seeking a determination from the Australian people.

In this case, the proposed amendment to the Constitution has never been considered by experts or a parliamentary committee and can scarcely be justified on these grounds alone. This referendum is a Labor sop to the Greens and the independents.

It has been talked up as providing certainty after two High Court cases held that some methods the Federal Government uses to fund local government are unconstitutional. This argument is a fallacy. It ignores the traditional means of funding councils via the state governments, through which $2.6 billion will be provided this year alone, demonstrating that this change to the Constitution is unnecessary.

Should the proposal succeed, there would be a number of consequences. Firstly, it will enable the Federal Government to micro-manage local communities by concentrating power in Canberra and reducing democratic control of councils by ratepayers.

It will also weaken our Constitution’s system of checks and balances by undermining the role of the states. Under the proposed changes, local governments will be subject to any terms and conditions that federal politicians and bureaucrats may demand in exchange for funding. This could see basic decision making being made in the isolation of Canberra rather than by local councils.

It is also worth noting that the Australian Electoral Commission has warned that 27 weeks is the appropriate time for a public information campaign. The Government has allowed fewer than 12 weeks. It hopes that an avalanche of money will help get their power-grab over the line on election day and that voters will not have time to digest the consequences of this significant change.

In the face of opposition by all state governments, the discredited and unprincipled process by which it has been advanced and the lack of trust in the motives of our Federal Government, this referendum is unlikely to succeed.

While I am firmly in the No camp, I believe that our nation would have been better served by having the question put in a balanced, fair and timely manner, rather than serve as an expensive distraction from the woes of the current government.

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