Councils push for federal cash

CASH-STRAPPED Hunter councils are planning to spend $500,000 on a media campaign to gain public support to change the Australian constitution to gain financial recognition of local government.

An expert panel, which the federal government appointed, has recommended a referendum be held in 2013 on the matter.

The referendum is planned at or before the next federal election, but both houses of parliament must first approve the proposal.

Councils hope the change will lead to more federal money flowing into their coffers.

Lake Macquarie City Council general manager Brian Bell said in a submission to the panel that research had shown the public would support such a change to the constitution.

This was despite two attempts in 1974 and 1988 having failed.

The expert panel wants a ‘‘major public awareness campaign’’ to reduce the chance of the referendum failing.

Maitland City Council has proposed that 11 councils, which are part of the organisation Hunter Councils, ‘‘jointly fund’’ a $500,000 media campaign for a ‘‘yes’’ vote.

Mr Bell said financial recognition of local government would ‘‘allow the Commonwealth to directly fund councils and help improve their financial sustainability’’.

The NSW government does not support financial recognition for local government ‘‘in the absence of clear evidence that existing funding arrangements are deficient’’.

NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell said in a submission to the panel that the plan may lead to ‘‘major state government policies being sidetracked or not given due regard’’.

The panel recommended a referendum be held on condition that the federal government negotiate with the states to gain their support.

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott said in a submission that the Coalition ‘‘supports appropriate constitutional recognition of local government’’, but opposed moves to sideline the states.

‘‘A referendum that sought to usurp the role of the states, or change the order of government in Australia, would be highly problematic,’’ Mr Abbott said.

Federal Local Government Minister Simon Crean said Labor had a ‘‘strong and long-held’’ commitment to recognise local government in the constitution.

‘‘The ability of the Commonwealth to directly fund local government supports and drives collaboration among all three levels of government,’’ Mr Crean said.

‘‘It can leverage additional investment in the regions, which is good for communities and the country.’’

Mr Crean said the federal government would respond to the panel early this year.

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