The coming Referendum on funding local government

Debate in the Parliament

The debate in the House of Representatives over

changing the Constitution to give the Commonwealth the power to grant financial assistance to any State, or to any local government body formed by a law of a State

was left very late indeed.

Adversaries? - not this time - 2 protest votes

And there was hardly a fight. The Bill was introduced [11:55] Wednesday, 5 June 2013, a limited debate occurred on that day and the House divided [19:04], as it is required to do, to record a required 'absolute majority'. Two members voted against the Referendum. The rest (133) voted for.

AYES - 133

Anthony AlbaneseMark Dreyfus

Minister for Local Government The Hon Anthony Albanese MP

Attorney General The Hon Mark Dreyfus QC, MP Mark Dreyfus (Labor)

NOES - 2

Dennis JensenAlexander Hawke

Dr Dennis Jensen MP (Liberal)

Alex Hawke MP (Liberal)




To see who spoke, & what they said, click on their name here -

For a detailed government account of the change, go to


At first glance one might think that with this kind of support, all major parties and independents, with just two mavericks who are promoting a personal response of 1, that the outcome is assured.

History of voting since 1901

But Australians don't go for Referenda. There have been 44 referenda to date, only 8 have been Carried.

When one examines the results, there is not a lot you can say, at first glance. There has been a huge amount of work done in universities to understand these results and it's best just to say here, there are no simple answers. It's complex.

Current problems getting together a positive message

But I think it is fair to say that, at present, both main sides of politics are too coy, by far.

Labor - do the work to prepare for a referendum but don't tell anyone

We, as [the public/ the elector], didn't know whether the Referendum was going to happen until 9 May 2013, when the PM launched the campaign, although we knew she had no choice because of the ruling June 2012 by the High Court that made failure to resolve a disaster waiting to happen. In fact we now know that the Government itself has done a huge amount of work to make it happen, but has preferred to keep Abbott (and therefore us) guessing and so has received no positive results from the work done to date. 

Coalition - negative 'no policy'

And we, [the public/ the elector], had no way of understanding Abbott's position or what would be the policy of the Liberal Party or the Coalition virtually until the day of the vote. Abbott had a real opportunity to put his hat in the ring on the day of the Budget 13 May 2013 when he was asked directly for a policy response. His answer was completely devoid of any policy commitment and he preferred to keep Gillard (and therefore us) guessing, and preferred to answer with a nothing statement rather than say anything positive about any step performed by Gillard. It is not until 16th May 2013 "doorstop" Barnaby Joyce indicates that "we will support this" but in the most negative commitment possible, devoid of any positive statement, saying generic negatives such as "within the Coalition there will be no case mounted", "local government won't be able to do anything unless the states allow it", "fears about the usurping of states’ rights by local government", and on and on. See the timeline

Could this possibly result in a YES?

The playing out of a completely negative campaign to date, focussed on the 'failure of the other', is definitely not the circumstances we expect, based on past experience, necessary for the Carry-ing of a referendum. Carry-ing usually coincides with detailed and extensive explanation and argument and a generally optimistic electorate. Both sides are expecting local government to step in and make the case for them. It is yet to be seen; but based on past experiences with referenda, the prospects are poor. And what nobody is saying, at present, although this was a key factor in Barnaby Joyce's doorstopper, what happens if the local governments come out strongly "FOR" only to be undermined by bad press by state governments, who have everything to lose. At present, this seems like a very strong prospect.

This page

Senate - more protest votes

Senator Brandis moved the following amendment:

At the end of the motion, add "but that further consideration of the bill be made an order of the day for the first sitting day after the Government puts into place financial arrangements to provide for equal funding for both the `yes' and the `no' cases, to ensure that the Australian community is properly informed about the arguments for and against the proposed change to the Constitution." Defeated.


After debate. As no division was called for, the President drew attention to the constitutional requirement that the bill must be passed by an absolute majority and directed that the bells be rung.

Question agreed to by an absolute majority (46-8) of the Senate, as required by the Constitution.

For who voted AYE & NO see


"THE Rudd government faces pressure to dump the planned referendum on recognising local government in the constitution, with public and Coalition support for the change evaporating.

"Federal parliament has passed laws, with strong bipartisan support, to allow the referendum to go ahead in conjunction with the forthcoming federal election.

"But Kevin Rudd has scrapped the September 14 election date set by Julia Gillard, and is weighing up an earlier or later poll. The referendum cannot be held before September 14.

"Labor has been banking on senior Coalition figures, including Nationals Senate leader Barnaby Joyce, strongly spruiking the 'yes' case.

"But Coalition frontbencher Christopher Pyne said today he believed the referendum would be voted down, while Tony Abbott said he had 'enormous reservations' about it."

AAP The Australian July 02, 2013 4:54PM


"The Federal Government has announced a referendum on the recognition of local government in the Australian Constitution. The referendum will be held on 14 September 2013, the same day as the federal election.

"What is the referendum about?

"The referendum seeks to amend the Constitution to give ‘financial recognition’ to local government. It would amend section 96 of the Constitution so that it reads (new words underlined):

During a period of ten years after the establishment of the Commonwealth and thereafter until the Parliament otherwise provides, the Parliament may grant financial assistance to any State, or to any local government body formed by a law of a State, on such terms and conditions as the Parliament thinks fit.

"The main purpose of this amendment is to give the Commonwealth the power to directly fund local governments, rather than having to provide funding indirectly through the states. Currently, the Commonwealth provides both direct and indirect funding to local government bodies. While its capacity to provide indirect funding is unquestioned, its constitutional ability to provide direct funding (which supports the Roads to Recovery program, among others) has been cast into doubt by recent High Court decisions."


Michelle Grattan writes:

Tony Abbott has given the government an excuse to ditch the proposed referendum to recognise local government in the constitution, if it wants to. Abbott today advised Australians who did not understand the issue to vote against the change. The opposition leader has in principle backed recognition, but said while campaigning today in Victoria: “If you are not fully persuaded, don’t vote for it, because our constitution is far too important to be trifled with.”

Michelle Grattan Professorial Fellow at University of Canberra: The Conversation 2 July 2013, 3.26pm EST


Nicholas Reece Public Policy Fellow at University of Melbourne writes:

"On June 24, parliament passed a bill authorising the holding of a referendum on whether to give constitutional recognition to local government. Section 128 of the Constitution provides that a referendum must be held after two months but less than six months after the approval of parliament.

"According to the AEC, the combined effect of the Constitution and the Commonwealth Electoral Act is that the earliest date an election and referendum can be held simultaneously is two months and 18 days after June 24.

"This means any election called before September 14 will not be able to be held simultaneously with the referendum, something the government will want to avoid. Alternatively, the government may elect to drop the referendum."

The Conversation: 1 July 2013, 7.05am EST


"A special online Morgan Poll conducted over the weekend (June 21-23, 2013) now shows less than half Australian electors (47%, down 6% since May 2013) say they will vote ‘yes’ (23% unchanged) or are leaning towards voting ‘yes’ (24%, down 6%) on this year’s Local Government referendum question about allowing the Federal Government to directly fund Local Government.

"This is still ahead of the number of Australian electors who say they will vote against the referendum question (30%, down 1%) including 17% (down 4%) that say they will vote ‘no’ and a further 13% (up 3%) that are leaning towards voting ‘no’."


“A referendum needs a majority of electors in Australia and a majority of electors in four States to pass, and today’s Morgan Poll shows that threshold is unlikely to be reached in September for this year’s Local Government Referendum question. Only in NSW (54% approve) are a majority of electors in favour, followed closely by Queensland (50%), but clearly less than half the electors in Tasmania (43% approve), Victoria (42% approve), South Australia (42% approve) and Western Australia (37% approve) are in favour.”


"With a referendum on local government funding just around the corner, the federal government faces the difficult task of educating voters about a complex change to the Australian Constitution. Many Australians, particularly first time voters, may not have turned their minds to the Constitution before; others may have dim recollections of voting in the last referendum in 1999. Studies show that voters have very little understanding of the contents of the Constitution, and one leading commentator has said that Australians will resist all attempts to encourage them to take an interest in it. Given this difficult backdrop, how can we equip voters with the information they need to cast an informed vote?"


"The poll on 14 September will be Australia’s first social media referendum, and there is no doubt that activists on both sides will look to harness the potential of Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr (etc) to their advantage. A couple of groups got away to a head start. The most notable was a Twitter campaign that issued rapid-fire tweets over the course of the weekend making the case for change, providing useful information about the Constitution and emphasising the importance of enrolling to vote. So successful was this feed that, within a few days, it counted among its followers leading constitutional law academics and the federal treasurer, Wayne Swan."

Jackie Hartley & Paul Kildea: "The referendum is coming: But are we ready?: InsideStory 26 June 2013


"This week's National General Assembly of Local Government (NGA) drew more than 1000 delegates from councils across Australia to Canberra, where they debated issues of national significance to local government and united in their commitment to constitutional recognition of local government. 

"Council representatives and federal politicians from different persuasions agreed that the number one priority for the sector at this time was constitutional recognition to support direct federal payments to local government via a referendum on 14 September.

"Local Government Minister Anthony Albanese told delegates that while he has many differences of opinion with Coalition Local Government Spokesman Barnaby Joyce, 'on this referendum issue we will unite to campaign for a 'yes' vote'.

"Opposition Spokesperson for Local Government, Senator Barnaby Joyce said constitutional change was needed to give certainty to future direct grants from the Commonwealth and urged councils to work hard to win the campaign. 

"'I am fighting on your behalf ... but this is really up to you,' Senator Joyce told local government representatives.

"'You have to win this argument in the media and in your local communities ... what works is when you get around and talk to people in the community individually.'

"These sentiments were reinforced by Nationals Leader Warren Truss and Greens Leader, Senator Christine Milne, who have been long-term supporters of ALGA's case for constitutional reform."

Australian Local Government Association (ALGA) 21 June 2013


"The local government sector has applauded the passing of legislation through the House of Representatives last night that would allow a referendum to be held at the time of the September federal election to include local government in the Constitution.

"The Constitutional Alteration Bill outlines a simple and pragmatic change to Section 96 of the Constitution to acknowledge the financial relationship between the Commonwealth and local government and confirm the continuation of direct federal funding for community infrastructure and services.

"'Although we are disappointed that two Opposition MPs voted against the Bill, the legislation received overwhelming support by members across the political divide, with 134 MPs voting in favour of the Bill,' ALGA President, Mayor Felicity-ann Lewis said.

"'This is another win for communities across the country as we move toward securing financial recognition for local government and funding certainty for our communities.

"'Without the inclusion of local government in the Constitution, councils are not recognised as legitimate recipients of direct, federal funding and as such, Commonwealth funding for communities is under threat.'"

ALGA 5 June 2013

"Anyone who cares about the referendum to recognise local government in the constitution must be appalled at the way it is being botched.

"Millions of dollars are being spent on this vote, to be held with the general election, but if it ever had a chance, the politicians seem determined to sabotage it.

"It’s the last thing on the mind of a government that is a shambles in general, and the opposition is sharply divided on the issue, with Senate Liberal leader Eric Abetz making his opposition clear while Coalition local government spokesman Barnaby Joyce, also a member of the leadership group, is campaigning strongly for the proposal."

Michelle Grattan Professorial Fellow at University of Canberra: The Conversation

READ MORE about what happened in the Senate on Monday night

Dennis Jensen

Dennis Jensen 18/6/2013 writes:

"Attorney general, Mark Dreyfus, blatantly lied in Parliament on funding campaign on Constitutional change to recognise local government. The government is funding the Yes campaign to the tune of $10 million, and the No campaign to the tune of $500K. I urge all patriots to vote NO, and also insist on the government paying an equal amount for the yes and no campaigns. For the government to be abusing process to use our Constitution as a political plaything is a disgrace."


Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow at University of Canberra: Conversation 18 June 2013, 11.20pm EST writes:

"In the Coalition party room, those who oppose the referendum – and they are quite a solid block – suddenly have new grist from the government’s decision to give $10 million to fund the 'yes' case but only $500,000 for the 'no' one.

"The 'no' allocation was based on the tally of MPs (two Liberals) who voted against the referendum in the lower House. There will be more in the Senate, where a number of Coalition senators plan to cross the floor or abstain in the vote due this week.

"Abbott has written a sharp letter to the PM, declaring there should be equal funding.

"He’s on a classic barb wire fence over the referendum. The opposition has given it formal but lukewarm backing, with Abbott making it clear he wouldn’t be campaigning actively for it.

"The government’s foolish decision on lopsided funding may be providing Abbott with a rationale for stepping back further. He told the party room the issue was 'unfolding'.

"But if Abbott retreats, he will be repudiating his local government spokesman Barnaby Joyce, who told the national assembly of local government in Canberra today: 'I’m passionately engaged with wanting to get this up'.

"In a frank account of the opposition’s divisions Joyce, noting that the debate had started in the Senate, went on: 'This is going to be tough. We will have people crossing the floor against this. … I’ve tried my best but these people are crossing the floor because at the primary level in their connection with local government officials they have not been talked to, not in numbers, not in a pestiferous, engaged and calculated way'. Others, he said, would not turn up for the vote.

"Becoming even more confessional, Joyce said: 'I am fighting on your behalf in the Leadership Group of the Coalition … To be honest with you, I’m burning up political capital doing it, trying to keep them on board to make sure we get this thing through' "


"The anarchy that has beset the nation is further illuminated by Tony Windsor, who said he will only work with Gillard. One could be so bold as to suggest the nation should come before personalities.

"If Windsor does pull the trigger, that is the end of the referendum into financial recognition of local government.

"Section 128 of the constitution requires that a law to amend the constitution be passed not less than two months before the referendum. On the election timetable, that law must be passed by June 25 because pre-polling opens on August 26.

"Therefore, any election before September 7, in effect, would mean this referendum would not occur. I thought the recognition of local government was part of the independents' so-called 'deal'."

Barnaby Joyce: Sydney Morning Herald


24 May 2013: Narelle Miragliotta, Senior Lecturer in Australian Politics at Monash University, writes:


"Given the widespread support for constitutional recognition of local government, one could be forgiven for thinking the proposed referendum is both innocuous and beneficial.

"However, the changes being proposed to the Constitution are significant in both practice and in principle.

"Whether it is the Gillard government’s intention or not, this referendum will permit further federal government expansion into affairs which it does not have original formal jurisdiction.

"While this federal 'creep' has been occasionally sanctioned by the High Court, it has largely come about as a consequence of the financial dominance of the federal government. [...]"


Add new comment

Filtered HTML

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.