It is now over two and a half years since the Victorian Government and the Constitutional Centenary Foundation staged a re-enactment of the 1898 Australasian Federal Convention. The 1898 Melbourne Convention finalised the draft constitution, that was later passed by referendum, leading to the creation of our Commonwealth on 1 January 1901.
At the event two years ago, which marked the centenary of the historic 1898 Convention, former Chief Justice of the High Court, Sir Anthony Mason, in the keynote address said that although the relationship between the new Commonwealth and soon to be States dominated in 1898, a century later it is vital to be discussing the role of international organisations and Local Government. He said to meet the challenge of globalisation and to take advantage of the opportunities it offers, all spheres of government must be engaging in effective cooperation.
Invited government, business and community leaders from across the nation took part in the modern Melbourne Convention. One of their recommendations was that the State Premiers and Chief Ministers commission an independent review of Local Government.
This would consider a range of issues including the roles and responsibilities of all spheres of government and recognition of Local Government in the Australian Constitution.
Since then little more has been achieved. The failure of the Republic proposal put to referenda late last year, seems to have stymied the constitutional reform agenda. This is in spite of the fact that, as we enter the 21st century and begin to celebrate the Centenary of our Federation, as a nation our needs are vastly different to those of a century ago. Not the least of these is the growing importance of local democracy and Local Government.
In Victoria, the Bracks Government has, since its election last year, indicated support for the Victorian Constitution to be reformed giving greater status and protection to Local Government.
In light of this, the Municipal Association of Victoria and Victorian Local Governance Association will stage 'Constitutional Convention 2000: Strengthening Constitutional Recognition of Local Government' on 30 November. To be co chaired by two former Premiers, Rupert Hamer and John Cain, all Victorian Councils have been invited to nominate one Councillor as a delegate.
The Issues Paper, which will be the basis for discussions on the 30 November, states that, the Victorian Constitution, 'should set out the status and role of Local Government and therefore, the relationship between the State and Local Government. An important element of this is the inclusion of provisions that have a protective function and provide a basis from which Local Government can defend itself against undue State intervention. However, such provisions should also preserve sufficient flexibility, so as not to inhibit the institution of Local Government, or its future development'.
From the reform options to be debated at Constitutional Convention 2000, recommendations will then be forwarded to the Government.
There is no doubt that Local Government in the other States and Territories will watch with interest to see if the Victorian Government will support the reform proposals, and then, if the necessary legislation can successfully make its way through the Upper House, thereby bringing this aspect of the Victorian Constitution in line with 21st century needs and aspirations.