Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Local government referendum

Worse still, by getting his arguments so totally wrong, he has missed the real dangers lurking in the details of the proposal: dangers to local government raised by independent experts.

Saunders starts by saying ''we should think again on the terms of 'recognition' of local government'' and ''this is not a good idea''. Then she says the proposal ''undermines the authority of the states in areas of state responsibility''. Her next point is that the proposal will not only increase Commonwealth power but executive power.

She notes that Canberra funding will come with ''no limits on the conditions that can be attached to a grant''. This is a powerful point for Joyce - he reckons ''local governments know how to do local roads better than state governments and definitely better than federal governments''.

But, as Saunders warns, federal government conditions will mean that federal bureaucrats will be running the show, not councils. Joyce thinks that the federal government should not be interfering with basic council functions but he is urging voters to support more power to federal bureaucrats to do exactly that.

According to Saunders, the proposal is ''not constitutional recognition of local government''.

''Constitutional recognition is about dignity,'' she writes. ''There is nothing dignified about receiving conditional grants under these kinds of arrangements.''

My final point relates to Joyce's spectre that councils may not be able to be funded for ''mobile phone blacks pots, bridges and community infrastructure''.

Joyce says that these are ''probably unconstitutional too'' but there is no question that the Commonwealth can always make grants in areas of Commonwealth responsibility.

So if mobile phones are within the federal government's jurisdiction then Joyce's claim about mobile phones would obviously be scaremongering.

And, of course, the Commonwealth can make grants on any topic as long as it goes through the states. No wonder that the Labor government has not tried to say otherwise.

Twomey canvasses many of the same issues in a longer piece. It is one that is well worth reading.

Twomey says: ''I cannot see why the grants that are currently being given directly to local government cannot be passed on to local government through s 96 grants. It is difficult to argue that the potential unconstitutionality of such grants is the 'problem' that needs to be 'fixed' by a referendum, when there is another, clearly valid, way of giving the same amount of money to the states for the same purposes without the need for a constitutional amendment. In effect, there is no 'problem' - merely a perception of a problem - which is likely to be blown out of the water in a referendum campaign.''

And Twomey makes another point especially relevant to Joyce, who wants to represent local government in NSW.

She argues that a likely outcome of a ''direct funding'' constitutional amendment would be the establishment by the Commonwealth of a single horizontal fiscal equalisation formula to be applied to all local government areas and that this would seriously disadvantage NSW and Victoria.

Joyce should read the fine print before advocating a proposal that will mean more power to the federal bureaucracy and potentially significant disadvantage to the people he wants to represent.

Peter Reith is a former Howard government minister, chairman of the NO case in 1988, when local government recognition was last put to a referendum, and former Phillip Island Shire president.

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