The president of the Samuel Griffith Society, former High Court Justice, the Hon. I. D. F. Callinan A.C. has issued a statement calling for opposition to the planned referendum for the Constitutional recognition of Local Government. In the statement, His Honour writes:
All Australians should resist the proposal for a referendum to amend the Constitution to constitute local authorities as constitutional polities. The proposal will, if adopted, enable the Commonwealth government to side line the states and divide and rule a multiplicity of clamouring councils swollen in ego and, inevitably in bureaucracy. Anyone who would believe that local autonomy and democracy will be enhanced would be delusional. Instead, the flow of funds and accordingly the preference for project over project, and their implementation will be micro-managed by Canberra. The marginalised states will be denied the capacity to design and implement the infrastructure that the states require, and, in addition to the demarcation disputes in the High Court between the states and the Commonwealth, there will be endless litigation between the states, the Commonwealth and the new empowered local authorities as to who is entitled to do what and equally importantly, where. Vote yes at your peril.¹
The Sydney Traditionalists have always been wary of attempts to centralise executive power. Currently, the Labor government under Prime Minister Julia Gillard has been focused on accumulating more political influence over local affairs through their ultimate control of financial and other economic factors, such as the flow of resources through the manipulation of tax, the grant system and the selective investment in local projects.
We are however also wary of the opportunistic ways of the Liberal National Coalition has dealt with this issue. History has show that these ‘conservative’ governments have not been immune from favouring centralist policies for political expedience or momentary benefit. Former Prime Minister John Howard’s industrial relations reforms, which were taken to the High Court by New South Wales but ultimately found not to be unconstitutional,² has now allowed present and future Labor Federal governments to meddle in the economic affairs of the States. We also note that current Liberal Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, has been on record as favouring centralist policy.³
When such ‘reforms’ are put in place, power will ultimately be liable to abuse by an unscrupulous government of whatever ideological persuasion. Unfortunately, the nature of politics in a mass social democracy (such as the one we suffer in Australia) will encourage the worst sort of short sighted opportunism among the political elites. No party appears to be immune to this phenomenon. It is therefore up to civic associations such as the Samuel Griffith Society (and indeed the Sydney Traditionalist Forum) to do what the political class has failed to do: encourage honest debate and warn of the dangers of changes to our constitutional order which may seem innocuous on their face, but may lead to rather significant and debilitating consequences.
In the statement, the Samuel Griffith Society encourages the public to visit a website specifically designed to inform citizens about the dangers of the proposed constitutional reform. The section titled ‘Why Vote No?’ contains a summary of the arguments to oppose the reform. Below, we provide a brief overview:
(1) Local services will suffer. This is because conditions will be attached to funding for services, where those conditions reflect the demands of a distant political class which is divorced from the local experience of the communities those services are supposed to benefit. Decisions will likely be made by people who have no idea what the communities want and need. Indeed, decisions made be made by people who have never even visited those communities at all.
(2) Local government will suffer. The prestige of being recognised in the Constitution may inflate the egos of local council Mayors, but it will geld them politically. With funding tightly controlled by the political class in Canberra, Mayors will effectively be reduced to the status of a federal representative or agent, wholly subservient to the dictates of the bureaucracy in which ultimate power resides through the control of funding and grants.
(3) Local council authorities will defer responsibility to a distant political bureaucracy. As time passes and local authorities realise that their position is that if a middle-man, or enforcer of the Federal will, their secondary status will naturally lead to apathy and a loss of responsibility.
(4) Power will concentrate in the hands of Canberra politicians and bureaucrats. The resulting political apathy and loss of responsibility will only reinforce the need of Commonwealth authorities to entrench their role as the primary service providers or facilitators. By corollary, local communities will become less self reliant and increasingly dependent on the patronage of a centralised government.
(5) Rates will likely increase and accountability among local council authorities will decline. Local authorities will cease to be accountable to their electors, after all, they are no longer the ones in which final decision making power resides. It is likely that demands will be made by the Federal authorities in exchange for funding. Judging by the hyper-legislative nature of modern parliamentary politics, it is not unreasonable to assume that these demands will involve an increase in regulations. Experience instructs us that this will likely involve an increase in rates and levies.
(6) The reform will reduce the democratic involvement of local communities in their own local affairs. The conservative instinct suggests that power is best broke up and distributed, else political or administrative tyranny finds fertile ground to grow. The foregoing points suggest that the proposed referendum will ultimately reduce the democratic nature of our society and remove the level of community involvement in local affairs.
(7) The referendum is a Trojan Horse for the Federal political class, which could use its new power to directly influence the manner in which everything from schools, hospitals and local cultural associations all of which receive Commonwealth funds, are ultimately run. Those associations which are not seen favourably (for whatever political or ideological reason) will be strangled and starved of resources, even in spite of local community support. Conceivably, any group that falls under the definition of a ‘local government body’ will be subject to the long arm of Camberra bureaucratic meddling.
Readers are invited to visit Vote No to Canberra’s Power Grab, particularly the section titled ‘Resources’ which contains an online library for further information and material.
- Samuel Griffith Society President’s Message, untitled, 10 June 2013.
- New South Wales v Commonwealth  HCA 52 (14 November 2006); 81 ALRJ 34; 231 ALR 1. Incidentally, it should be pointed out that His Honour Justice Callinan, who was appointed to the High Court by the Howard government and universally denounced by the liberal press as a “capital C conservative” delivered a dissenting judgment in this case.
- Tony Abbott, “A Conservative Case for Centralism” The Conservative (Issue 1, September 2005). This magazine was published in three issues, the last of which was January 2007. It is now defunct.