NATIONAL AFFAIRS: by Joseph PoprzecznyNews Weekly
Coalition divided over local government referendum
, August 4, 2012
The Liberal-National federal opposition is set to reject a Labor-Greens plan to hold a referendum during next year’s federal election campaign so that Canberra could gain control of Australia’s entire local government sector.
However, getting the Coalition parties into this position has been an arduous task. One reason is that two senior Queensland parliamentarians — Nationals Senate leader Barnaby Joyce and Liberal deputy Senate leader George Brandis — have been claiming that the Labor-Greens plan will win Coalition backing.
Both have called on Opposition leader Tony Abbott — who has previously said he would consider any “sensible proposal” on this question — to announce support for a referendum on what Labor and the Greens call “constitutional recognition of local government in Australia’s Constitution”.
But growing numbers of opponents within the Liberal Party have warned that such constitutional “recognition” could mean Canberra’s effective control of local councils, thereby facilitating the bypassing of state governments which presently possess powers to oversee councils.
They say that the Gillard-Greens proposal resurrects a 1921 Labor plan that sought central control of councils as the first step in the eventual abolition of state governments.
Labor’s 1921 centralising plan was devised by Victorian leftist Maurice Blackburn, who was also architect of Labor’s long-standing policy to socialise the economy (see News Weekly, July 22, 2006). The crucial element in the Blackburn Plan was the merging of local councils to create 31 provinces, all of which would then be centrally controlled.
Although Labor and the Greens now use the word regions rather than provinces, they persist in seeking constitutional authority to extend financial and other controls over councils, and subsequently created larger regions.
Because Labor was out of government during most of the 1920s and ’30s, it could not implement its Blackburn Plan.
However, the wartime Curtin Labor government sought sweeping constitutional powers in a 1944 referendum, which it lost. Notwithstanding this, the successor Chifley Labor government incorporated Canberra-devised regions into its post-war reconstruction programs.
The Whitlam government followed this precedent by establishing in 1973 a Department of Urban and Regional Development, which foreshadowed local councils being merged into larger Canberra-funded and directed regions.
The Whitlam government’s referendum in 1974 sought constitutional power over councils, as did the Hawke government’s referendum in 1988. Both were defeated.
The Gillard-Greens plan is therefore a re-run of Labor’s post-1921 plan to regionalise Australia so that Canberra can marginalise state governments.
What differs today is that several Coalition parliamentarians, such as Senators Joyce and Brandis, and a sizeable number of non-Labor local councillors, are backing the Gillard-Greens “new look” 1921 Blackburn blueprint, but not realising its ultimate aim is the displacement of state governments.
Nor apparently do they appreciate that the Liberal Party was founded in 1944 — the same year as the failed Curtin referendum — to ensure that Blackburn’s socialist and anti-federalist program would be defeated.
Recently, the New South Wales Liberal Party came out in favour of the Gillard-Greens plan. The Local Government and Shires Association (LGSA) of NSW praised the state’s Liberals for their positive response to the LGSA’s “Election Priorities 2011”.
“We’re particularly delighted that the [NSW] Coalition have committed to our proposal for a referendum to include a reference to local government in the Australian constitution,” LGSA president, Cr Keith Rhoades said.
“Labor and the Greens signed a formal agreement following the federal election in 2010 agreeing to a referendum to recognise local government in the Australian constitution. This was a significant and exciting decision for local government across the country, and we’re pleased it has now been reinforced at a state level in the responses to our Election Priorities.
“The Coalition and the Greens have given strong support in their response, acknowledging the vital role local government has to play in the delivery of essential services for the communities of NSW.”
However, a group of primarily Western Australian and Victorian Liberals have strongly opposed this stance. At the party’s federal council meeting in Melbourne on June 30, they won support for a motion which said: “That Federal Council opposes a referendum being held on any proposal to recognise local government in the Constitution; and urges the Liberal Party to campaign for the no case in the event such a referendum question is put.”
Senator Brandis spoke against the motion and claimed that Brisbane’s city council — which, unlike its counterparts in other state capitals, covers the entire city — has a budget larger than that of the Tasmanian government. He argued that Brisbane was therefore entitled to have direct contact with Canberra.
Opponents told the Queensland delegation that they should correct their own problems instead of seeking to destroy Australia’s federalist constitution by adopting an almost-forgotten 1921 Labor centralising plan.
The ball is therefore now in Mr Abbott’s court. Will he confirm his party’s federal council’s defence of states’ rights? Or will he go along with Queensland’s eagerness to cooperate with Labor’s plans to centralise Australia?
Joseph Poprzeczny is a Perth-based historian and writer.