Bipartisan support needed for 'yes' vote during referendum

Recent comments by Opposition Leader Tony Abbott could contribute to a failed referendum, an expert said.
Recent comments by Opposition Leader Tony Abbott could contribute to a failed referendum, an expert said. Lee Constable

A LACK of consensus support to recognise local government in the constitution could damage the chances of a successful referendum this year, an expert said on Friday.

Griffith University constitutional law expert Professor A.J. Brown said one of the key factors in a successful "yes" vote during the referendum was bipartisan support.

But Prof Brown, who sat on the expert panel that considered the constitutional change, said recent comments by Opposition Leader Tony Abbott could contribute to a failed referendum.

Mr Abbott this week said while he supported the recognition of councils in the constitution, if people didn't understand the questions, they should vote "no" at the polling booth.

Prof Brown said the comments were "not what you'd call an unqualified statement of support".

"We know from experience that if people are given the soft option of not bothering to understand the question, or not finding out what it means, that's basically the same as advocating against it," he said.

Prof Brown said while people were usually interested in federal elections because it had a direct effect on them due to taxes and other policies, constitutional changes were harder to get across.

"With the constitution, its a little bit harder, as despite the importance of the document, it's much less visible in people's everyday life, so the trouble is trying to explain what a change would mean," he said.

Prof Brown also said the amount of time given to inform people and campaign for a referendum also was a major factor in the success or failure of the vote.

He said although he believed the local government referendum was "a meritorious proposal", if a referendum was held this year, it might not allow enough time for explain the changes.

"I was quoted during the Joint Select Committee hearings as saying a referendum like this would need at least six months to get organised," Prof Brown said.

"Although I'm very supportive of it, I think that's still the case; if you don't give people the time to digest the question, it's just inviting a majority no vote."

Local Government Minister Catherine King, on Thursday, said the government remained committed to holding the referendum this year.

But as Prime Minister Kevin Rudd had not yet decided on an election date, Ms King said the government needed to discuss when it could be held.

"It cannot be held before September 14, it can only be held after that date," she said.

"If we did do it separately to a federal election it is obviously going to be a much more expensive proposition and, obviously, we need to look at that, but my view is still that we should go ahead with it."

Topics:  catherine king local government referendum tony abbott

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