Monday, July 01, 2013

Canberra power grab is driving referendum

Every Victorian should vote ''No'' to attempts by politicians to buy constitutional change that will increase Canberra's power at the expense of local communities.

That's what Australians are facing with the coming referendum to allow the Federal Government to directly fund local councils.

The referendum might sound well intentioned, but in practice it will lead to a massive concentration of power in the hands of Canberra politicians and bureaucrats.

The change isn't just to allow Canberra to fund councils, it also allows them to attach strings to every dollar based on Canberra's priorities.

We know how this has worked in practice.

The Federal Government already gives tied grants to states based on what makes it easier for Canberra bureaucrats to tick a box on a form, not local need.

Canberra's indifference to local knowledge is why school halls were duplicated under Labor's BER.  It is also why we got disastrous consequences of Canberra's pink batts program.

Such wasteful programs are occasional.  But allowing the Federal Government to directly finance councils will make them a regular event as programs are imposed on communities.

That won't be the end of the problems.  Increased regulation and costs will be tied to every funding decision.  That means costs will rise, rates will rise and services will be cut.

Canberra bureaucracy will also blow out.  Bureaucrats will fly all over the country to provide oversight of how our money is spent.

Our political system already lacks accountability.  This referendum will make it worse.  Sadly, local councils are more attracted by invitations to the Lodge for tea and the glittering pot of Canberra gold at the end of the referendum rainbow than defending local services based on local need.

The president of the Municipal Association of Victoria said that constitutional recognition ''will remove legal risks that place existing federal programs for roads and community infrastructure under a cloud of doubt''.

But there is no risk.  Programs such as Roads to Recovery are not at threat.  The argument is based on a misrepresentation of the opinion of Sydney University constitutional law professor Anne Twomey.

Prof Twomey has highlighted that the process the Federal Government uses to fund Roads to Recovery may be unconstitutional, but giving money for roads is not.

She also said that Constitutional recognition will lead to road funding being allocated based on need, not a fair state-by-state model, and Victoria will get less money.

There is nothing stopping the Federal Government funding councils through the states.  States are in better position to deliver programs because they are closer to the people they serve.

The real risk is from the power imbalance between Canberra and councils.  It doesn't take a genius to figure out who will have more negotiating power between a local mayor and the prime minister.

Last week showed how far Canberra is prepared to go to buy this change.  The Federal Government announced that $10.5 million of public money will be provided to campaign for the referendum.

Of that, $10 million is being given to the ''Yes'' campaign.  Only $500,000 is being given to the ''No'' case.  Nationwide, $10 million is also being raised from ratepayers for the ''Yes'' campaign, taking total public funds to $20 million.  That's 40 times what is being given to the ''No'' case.  That is not just unfair, it is wrong and shows how far politicians are prepared to go to buy an outcome that increases Canberra's power.

Considering the state of the nation, the question every Victorian should ask themselves is whether they think the country would be better off if Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott ran our councils as well.

If the answer is ''No'', then that is how Victorian should vote on election day.

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