FROM The Australian's front page story yesterday, it seems likely the federal Labor government will soon announce a referendum to coincide with the September election.
The referendum will propose the recognition of local government in our Constitution. The excuse for the referendum is that a recent decision by the High Court has put in question the legality of commonwealth funding direct to the states. But this is a ruse. Labor has wanted this change for decades and there is nothing to stop the commonwealth funding local government via the states.
If, as expected, Tony Abbott supports Labor's proposal by dragooning the partyroom, he will do so without any discussion with his MPs or the party organisation and will split Coalition premiers, rank-and-file supporters and a swag of his MPs.
Just because the major parties support a proposal does not mean success is guaranteed; ask Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser, who joined hands in the 1970s. Nor do polls foretell the results. When Labor's 1988 local government referendum was first announced the polls showed public support but it was soundly defeated. Only eight referendums have passed to change the Constitution and Labor has succeeded only once.
I do not understand why Abbott would want to muddy the political waters with an unnecessary referendum when the one priority for the September election is to terminate the worst Labor administration in living memory. If the proposal is meaningless then there is no reason to vote for it but if it means more power for Canberra, Labor's intention for decades, it should be opposed. Local government is the responsibility of state parliaments and if the central government meddles with local government it is likely that there will just be more duplication and red tape, increasing the costs of local government and clogging up local decision-making.
There are four common reasons for the failure of referendums and all are relevant here.
First, the public does not like proposals to give the federal government more power.
Second, part of the problem has been poor process. This proposal has been considered by a federal parliamentary committee with a majority of Labor MPs, which is not an adequate forum for review. The best way to conduct a referendum is first to hold a convention so that the people are not only responsible for the outcome, they are also involved in the first steps for change. This was relevant in 1988 when the record low for a referendum was set at 30.79 per cent.
If Abbott unilaterally announces the Coalition's support, then the Coalition's own lack of good process will further undermine the chances of success of the proposal.
The Constitution is not the plaything of government or opposition and effective process is essential to good government.
Third, most Australians don't like politicians fiddling with the Constitution; if the bike is not broken, why fix it? And there is evidence the public doesn't like being harassed for a third time for a change that has been rejected twice.
Fourth, the public has a well-founded fear about the consequences of change, especially after the judges of the High Court have decided to interpret any change differently from what the public expected. This was a factor in 1988 when the Catholic Church recommended a no vote partly in fear of how the courts might interpret the meaning of religion, burdening the country with unforeseen outcomes.
It applies equally to managing local government.
If the Coalition and Labor rush through the legislation to change the Constitution, not only will good process be abandoned but, with no dissenting voices, the rules of the parliament will ensure that there is not even a formal no case committee to put the alternative point of view. The debate will then be biased in favour of the yes case and a noisy election will smother the right of the electorate to hear both sides. If Mr Abbott wants a referendum, he should defer the proposal until the public can carefully consider the arguments within a better process, as John Howard provided for the republic debate.
Peter Reith is a former Howard government minister and chairman of the committee for the successful no case in the 1988 referendum on local government.