Federalism’s slow erosion has proceeded for the most part by fits and starts, the states’ being gradually diminished by Canberra’s appetite to insert itself in every aspect of Australian life. The latest effort to allow the direct funding of local governments is the most brazen bid so far
Make no mistake about it. The campaign to emasculate and eventually abolish state governments is on again. The two previous attempts to enshrine local government in the Australian constitution, the first by Gough Whitlam and the second by Bob Hawke, were soundly defeated. But mere democratic defeat has never been a deterrent to radicals determined to destroy our federal system.
At least Gough Whitlam was relatively straightforward about the ultimate agenda, which is the abolition of the states and retaining but two levels of government – a central government plus regional authorities. Under such an arrangement, the regional authorities would take over the current functions of local government plus some former state government functions and all other state government functions would be assumed by Canberra. Centralization of political power has always been integral to the socialist agenda.
Well, the Gillard Government is at it again.
The disturbing aspect is the muddled equivocation of the coalition. Particularly worrying are the views of Barnaby Joyce and other Nationals. Nothing is allowed to stand between a National Party politician and a bucket of money. Having decried unsustainable Federal Government debt in the past, Joyce now views Federal coffers as a pot of gold for local government. It doesn’t seem to occur to him, or to his fellow Nationals, that money from Canberra will come with strings attached and greater central government control of local authorities would be inevitable. Local government would be increasingly accountable to the central government and less accountable to their local communities. As the old saying goes, ‘he who pays the piper calls the tune.’
At the very least, some fundamental questions have to be asked.
(1) If local government is to be recognized in the Constitution, what functions, structure and size would be defined as local?
(2) What will be the states’ functions in relation to local government? Will the states de facto lose the power to legislate with respect to local government even if they retain formal powers? What will be the impact on the current power of state governments to dismiss local councils?
(3) Could a future Federal Government enforce changes to the structure of local government, for example forcing amalgamations as a condition for the receipt of largesse?
Back in the 1970’s, Gough Whitlam artfully blurred any distinction between regional and local government. Unfortunately, it appears that coalition state governments have little appreciation of the distinction either. The New South Wales Government, for example, seems eager to push local government amalgamations. It seems not to occur to them that such amalgamations are steps on the road to the old Gough Whitlam dream of regional government, which would fatally undermine the traditional concept of local government being close to the people.
I will be voting ‘no’ in the referendum and I urge all readers to do likewise.
Christopher Carr is a frequent contributor to Quadrant Online