On this day, 113 years ago, Queen Victoria gave royal assent to the most important document in Australian government history – the Constitution.
If there’s one thing that both sides of politics can agree on, it’s that changing this historical document is neither easy nor insignificant.
Its importance is not lost on voters, who have seldom agreed to change. Out of 44 attempts, Australians have only agreed to amendments on eight occasions.
Another point we can all agree on is that since the Constitution was enacted in 1901, Australian society has undergone remarkable change.
Beneath the obvious revolutions in technology, transport and economics, where our society’s values and functions change so much that they contradict the constitution or are not reflected in it, it is the responsibility of government to offer the Australian people the opportunity to amend that.
Which brings me to the roads that you drive on every day, to your local swimming pool, the sports centre your kids play basketball at, the community hall you hired out for dad’s 60th and the tourist centres that bring visitors to your part of the world and help to support local economies.
While these services might not carry the emotive attachment of some other cases for constitutional change, they are undoubtedly central to the functioning of our communities and are vital to our way of life.
It won’t surprise many of you to learn that council rates can’t stretch to foot the bill for a new community medical clinic or childcare facility, for new bike paths or to develop an aged-care program, and so the Commonwealth chips in and has done so for more than four decades.
However, it would be a surprise to the founders of our constitution, who could never have envisaged that local government would have such responsibility for so many people. Accordingly, local government doesn’t rate a mention in their document, let alone the ability for the Commonwealth to fund it.
What this referendum is seeking to do is to reflect the reality that we live every day. To allow the Commonwealth to directly fund local councils in order for them to build key pieces of infrastructure and develop programs that are of immeasurable benefit to their communities.
Without it, this funding relationship will remain in limbo and risks legal challenges like in the Williams High Court case, which challenged the constitutional legality of federal funding.
So that we are clear: this is not a Federal Government power grab; it is not an attempt to disenfranchise state governments; it will not result in dark and obscure funding arrangements; and it most definitely will not facilitate the enshrining of Sharia law in our communities as some absurd emails have recently proclaimed.
It is a simple piece of national housekeeping that will secure the Australian people’s right to benefit from the funding programs that help keep our towns and suburbs strong and connected. This is all the more important for those who live in regional Australia, where the ties between local government and communities are particularly strong.
On the occasion of Constitution Day, I encourage all Australians to get onto their local council’s website and see what local government is delivering for them. I encourage them to consider the services they use, the infrastructure they value and the benefit of ensuring them into the future.
As a regional Australian, as the Minister for Local Government, and as a citizen who enjoys some downtime at the Ballarat library, I will be voting ‘yes’ at this referendum.
Catherine King is the Minister for Regional Australia, Local Government and Territories.