President's Comment - High Court decision boosts case for constitutional recognition

President’s Comment

In each edition we feature the views of a Local Government Association president. The following is from Councillor Paul Bell, President of the Local Government Association of Queensland (LGAQ).

With exquisite timing and right in the middle of the Australian Local Government Association’s National General Assembly, the High Court handed down its long-awaited decision in the challenge to the constitutional validity of the Gillard Government’s school chaplaincy program.

The court’s decision to outlaw direct Commonwealth funding of school chaplains contained observations about the extent of the Commonwealth’s executive power and its ability to fund programs directly. This has far reaching implications for local councils and has boosted the case for a national referendum to ensure the Australian Constitution protects the future of road funding programs vital to communities across the country.

Constitutional expert and University of New South Wales law professor, George Williams described the decision as “Pape on steroids’’,  a reference to an earlier High Court challenge to the Commonwealth’s ability to fund programs without involvement from the states. While the Gillard Government works through the wider implications of the judgement, its solution to the problems it presents to programs like Roads to Recovery is pretty simple: make good on its pledge to hold a referendum on recognising local government in the Constitution.

A successful referendum would put Roads to Recovery, worth $70 million a year to local road building programs in Queensland, beyond doubt. As I said in the media following the judgement, from Coolangatta to Cape York and out to Camooweal, every Queensland region relies on the Roads to Recovery program to keep their communities moving. That is what is at stake with this decision.

The ALGA will necessarily spearhead a national campaign supporting the ‘Yes’ case in any referendum but here in Queensland we have done some good groundwork in pre-positioning the local government sector to make sure Queensland voters know how important local councils are to their day-to-day lives. The campaign that is running on TV at the moment — Your local council: the fabric that keeps Queensland communities together — ends its run in a few weeks time, and was funded by local councils through a special levy collected by LGAQ. The levy raised $1 million over the past two years, money that has all gone into enhancing the image of local government ahead of the expected referendum.

We are pushing Canberra to move on its promise of a referendum so that this campaign can move to the national stage. This will also require funding through a special levy on Queensland councils, this time totalling $2 million, spread over the next two financial years. The levy would represent this state’s share of supporting a national campaign —funded by councils across the nation — that ALGA estimates will cost $10 million all up.

Would that be money well spent? The evidence is there to suggest it will be. An expert panel appointed by the Gillard Government to look at whether Australians are ready to support constitutional recognition of local government commissioned Newspoll to conduct some market research. What the survey found was that Queensland voters believed local government should be recognised in the Constitution and that, importantly, they would vote in a referendum to make it happen.

The expert panel said this showed there was a “correlation between efforts to improve community recognition of the value of local government in Queensland and shifts in support for constitutional recognition”. There’s no doubt the campaign for constitutional recognition has reached a crucial stage.

Editor’s note: As of 26th June 2012 the House of Representatives has passed legislation validating the Federal Government’s funding of the chaplaincy program and 427 other grants and programs, including Roads to Recovery. The Financial Framework Legislation Amendment Bill (No 3) 2012 will now pass to the Senate.