House debates

Wednesday, 5 June 2013


Constitution Alteration (Local Government) 2013; Second Reading

6:52 pm

Photo of Mark DreyfusMark Dreyfus (Isaacs, Australian Labor Party, Attorney-General) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank honourable members for their contributions to this important debate, and in particular my colleague the Minister for Regional Development and Local Government. The Constitution Alteration (Local Government) 2013 will make a small but important amendment to the Constitution by including an express statement that the Commonwealth can grant financial assistance to local government. This would include assistance for community and other services.

Local government bodies play an increasingly important role in our system of governance. From their establishment in providing basic services such as rubbish and roads, local governments now deliver a range of services that make our communities so livable. From local swimming pools and water parks to libraries, book loan vans, aged-care hostels, disability programs, arts festivals, galleries and tourism promotion, local governments are an essential facet in our lives. That they receive no mention in the Constitution and that there is no express provision for local government bodies to receive financial assistance directly from the Commonwealth is increasingly difficult to justify.

As speakers have pointed out, many of these council services are provided in partnership with the federal government. This has been common practice for decades. As I made clear in my second reading speech, and as the explanatory memorandum to the alteration bill also makes very clear, this proposed change will not diminish the role of the states with regard to the administration of local government. Recognition in the Constitution does not alter the fact that local governments are created by and are accountable to state governments. This is about saying yes to important community benefits from the partnership between federal and local spheres of government.

Of course, history shows that a referendum has the best chance of success when it has bipartisan support at the federal level. I thank the opposition for its support for the bill and encourage coalition members to join the campaign for a yes vote in September. It was very strange to hear the member for Mitchell imply that supporting recognition for local government somehow contradicts Liberal philosophy. He should try to explain that to the leader of his own party, who supports this change to our Constitution. We have heard considered and thoughtful contributions from across the chamber: from the member for Parkes, the member for Ryan and the member for Riverina. Of course, they represent the position of the federal opposition, which is to support this amendment. We have also heard a measured and helpful contribution from the member for New England and a like contribution from the member for Hinkler. The member for Hinkler rightly pointed out the significant differences in the process which has been followed in relation to this proposal to amend the Constitution compared with the previous proposals which related to local government, in 1974 and 1988.

It is only when members try to drag this debate down into party political attacks that we see the no case emerge. The member for Hughes, for example, labelled the proposal that has been brought forward by the government 'deeply flawed'. I would remind the member that this wording was first proposed by the 2012 expert panel led by the Hon. James Spigelman AC, QC, and subsequently endorsed by a parliamentary joint select committee comprising members from across the political spectrum. It has been drafted by the First Parliamentary Counsel and reviewed by the Solicitor-General. I prefer to pursue an amendment considered by these experts and informed by broad-ranging community consultation, rather than any alternative proposal from the member for Hughes.

The member for Mitchell also made the claim during debate that the government has committed $21.6 million to a campaign to support the yes vote at the referendum. This is simply not true. What the government has committed to—and this is set out in the budget papers—is $10 million to fund a neutral, non-partisan civics education campaign. That campaign will provide the community with information about the Constitution and the process for considering any change in the roles of the Commonwealth, the states and local government, and about the terms of the proposed alteration. This education campaign will not advocate either a yes vote or a no vote but will help ensure electors are aware of the issue and in a position to make an informed vote—which brings me to the contribution of the member for Tangney. He is not content to simply call this change 'anti-Liberal'; he calls it 'un-Australian'. I quote from the member:

That is not the Liberal way and that is not the Australian way. This bill in essence is un-Australian. This bill would enable the diminution of local sovereignty and democracy, and no Liberal member should, or can, respectably support less democracy.

That the member is so willing to question the love for country and support for democracy of anyone supporting the referendum question, including members of this parliament, gives a clear indication of the feverish no campaign that is planned by some. Of course, the member for Tangney is completely wrong to suggest that the bill would diminish local sovereignty or democracy. Local government is free to reject any offer of assistance from the federal government.

In stark contrast to these isolated voices, when I introduced this bill I noted that it is actually part of a truly democratic process. There is no better way to honour the democratic society in which we live than to engage in constructive discussion and decision on the structure of our government. The referendum will give the people of Australia the opportunity to decide whether 17 words should be added to the Constitution. These words will recognise the modern reality that the Commonwealth grants financial assistance to local government for a variety of important community and other services. I thank the House for its support for this important proposal for constitutional amendment.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.