By Laureate Professor Cheryl Saunders AO
The latest proposal to amend the Commonwealth Constitution to ‘recognise’ local government may go down in history as one of the most inept attempts at constitutional change in Australia. Insofar as it has an indirect link to the decisions of the High Court in Pape v Commissioner of Taxation  HCA 23 and Williams v Commonwealth  HCA 23 it merits a post on Opinions on High. In any event, there are lessons to be drawn from the history of this proposal, as a guide to the formulation and conduct of future referendum proposals.
Constitution Alteration (Local Government) 2013 (Cth) passed both Houses of the Commonwealth Parliament on 24 June 2013. The impetus for it derived from a long-held desire on the part of local government to be recognised in the Commonwealth Constitution as the third arm of Australian government. This project is fraught because recognition almost inevitably involves substantive change of some kind in the operation of the Australian federation, in which the relations between the other two arms of government already is under strain. A proposal cast in terms of symbolic recognition was rejected at referendum in 1988. An earlier proposal to establish a direct financial relationship between the Commonwealth and local government was rejected in 1974 (see here). Continue reading