Posted on October 29, 2013 by

Constitutional Recognition of Local Government: Definitely ‘Off Again’

During his address to the 2013 Conference and Annual General Meeting of the South Australian Local Government Association on Friday October 25, the newly appointed Deputy Prime Minister and Local Government Minister, Warren Truss, told delegates that the Coalition Government had no plans to put the issue of constitutional recognition of local government forward as a referendum question.

We reported on 8 August 2013 that the previous Federal Government had decided not to proceed with a referendum question on this issue at the 2013 election.  A link to that article, which cites our previous posts on the limited ‘financial recognition’ of local government which was proposed is here.

In advising that a referendum question was off the Government’s agenda, Mr Truss reassured delegates that he was aware of no challenge to joint Federal and local initiatives like the Roads to Recovery program.  We have previously reported that Professor George Williams has expressed the view that the Federal Government may have handed over millions of dollars in local government grants and initiatives which exceed the Commonwealth’s powers under the Constitution.  You can read our previous article on the question and how it was impacted by the Pape High Court decision here.

Mr Truss also made the almost obligatory statement made by politicians of both major parties when announcing a deferral or refusal of this issue that he remains a firm supporter of local government, laying the blame for the failure to proceed at the feet of the previous Government.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the issue, there is a real question as to whether the Federal Government can make direct grants to councils under the Constitution.  While this may be an esoteric issue for most voters, if the question is raised and answered in the High Court in the negative, the impact on councils nationwide, especially rural councils, could be devastating.  Instead of being able to make grants directly to councils, the Federal Government may have to give the money to the States and hope that the funds reach the nominated targets without interference.

Mr Truss was confident that the Roads to Recovery program and other Federal spending initiatives were safe from challenge and he promised to ‘vigourously defend their validity if challenged’.

If the matter were raised in a referendum, supported by the Government, the question could be put beyond doubt, but that possibility is now an election away, at the earliest.