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Tuesday, 23 August 2011
Page: 9127

Mr GRIFFIN (Bruce) (22:26): Local government plays an incredibly important role in the Australian community. It represents local communities, provides essential services close to where people live and coordinates local resources to achieve community goals. It delivers a range of programs funded by the Australian government and it delivers critical infrastructure such as local roads.

It would be difficult to provide services such as libraries and waste recycling without local government and yet local government does not rate a mention in the Australian Constitution. It is the invisible partner in our Federation. The Labor Party has long held the view that this is an omission that must be rectified. The Commonwealth constitutional convention established by the Whitlam government recommended that local government be given recognition in the Australian Constitution. In 1974 proposals relating to local government went to a referendum for determination by the people. However, none of the referendum proposals put to the vote in 1974 were successful. Like so many other referendum proposals before them they did not succeed because they failed to attract bipartisan political support. At the time the coalition argued that these proposals would diminish the role of the state and concentrate more power in the hands of the Commonwealth. They claimed that if these proposals were successful Labor would be able to bypass the states and directly fund a network of regional government.

In 1988 the Hawke government put a watered down proposal to the people which provided for the establishment and continuance of local government in each state. This was again opposed by the opposition and defeated at the referendum. Yet local government is given much more significant recognition in the constitutions of other countries, for example in Sweden and also in South Africa where a whole chapter is devoted to local government including its objects, powers and functions. Yet, as I said, in Australia it does not rate a mention.

However, constitutional recognition of our third tier of government has continued to be pursued by Labor. The Australian Labor Party went to the 2007 election with a platform commitment to constitutional recognition of local government. A recent High Court decision in the Pape case has also brought into sharp focus the need for constitutional reform. The High Court's determination raises serious doubts over whether the federal government has the power to directly fund local government through programs such as Roads to Recovery and the Community Infrastructure program. Constitutional reform will resolve this uncertainty and protect these vital sources of local government funding.

This is where members of this place from all political persuasions can find common cause. It is possible to develop a referendum question that would not seek to undermine the powers of state governments or restrict their ability to regulate or reform local government but it would grant constitutional recognition and remove funding uncertainty. This is the position of the Australian Local Government Association, a position supported by an overwhelming majority of local councils across Australia.

The expert panel on constitutional recognition provides a fresh opportunity to address these questions. Chaired by the Hon. James Spigelman QC it includes representatives from all sides of politics including current and former members of parliament. The panel will consult extensively across Australia before presenting a final report to the government in December this year. I look forward to seeing the outcomes of this work on this very important matter which provides an opportunity to recognise finally in the Constitution of this great nation the very important role that local government plays as the third tier of government—a government that many members in this House, myself included, have had service in in years gone by, an area of government that is incredibly and vitally important to the provision of services throughout this nation on behalf of all those that we represent.

The SPEAKER: Order, it being 10.30 pm, the debate is interrupted.

House adjourned at 22:30