Chaplaincy case could threaten local government referendum

A HIGH Court case won by a Toowoomba man last year could threaten the chance of a national referendum on the constitutional recognition of local government this year, a Senate inquiry was told on Wednesday.

In 2010, Toowoomba father Ronald Williams took the Commonwealth to court challenging the legality of the Federal Government's school chaplaincy program and the separation of church and state.

While he did not win his challenge to the separation of church and state, Mr Williams did win his case against the validity of the funding program.

After winning the case in June last year, the government was forced to pass urgent legislation to protect numerous government funding programs, including school chaplains.

But the wider effects of the case are still being felt, with the Australian Local Government Association on Wednesday arguing a delay in the court's decision has threatened a potential national referendum on local government.

A Senate Inquiry has been investigating the potential for constitutional recognition of local government - which could secure direct funding arrangements for all Australian councils, circumventing the need to funnel cash through state governments.

Such a major change to Australia's government would need every Australian to vote in a national referendum on the issue.

ALGA vice-presidents Troy Pickard and Keith Rhoades told the inquiry the combination of the High Court's delay and a federal election scheduled for this year meant the vote was unlikely to happen in 2013.

The association has been pushing for such a vote since 2007, but has so far been unable to mount a public campaign outside of councils to push the issue on to the national agenda.

Mr Pickard and Mr Rhoades said there were four prerequisites that needed to be in place before a "successful yes vote" could ensure the change would happen.

Those included strong, bipartisan support for the vote; the Federal Government taking up the negotiations with the states, a huge public awareness campaign and some minor changes to existing referendum laws.

Mr Rhoades said the vote had the support of almost every council in the country, bar five, and most state and territory governments also supported the change.

But he said the procrastination of the court's delay in its decision on the Williams case was one of the biggest reasons why the vote had not been held yet.

And now, the association believes there was not enough time to mount a successful campaign to get a yes vote, due to the upcoming election.

"It's our belief that whilst the issue is critical and we need a solution, we need to ensure there is adequate time, and it's our view that cannot be achieved before the federal election," Mr Rhoades said.

"But it can be achieved soon after."

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