Abbott backtracks on referendum

Tony Abbott has advised confused voters to vote no on the referendum. AAP/David Crosling

Tony Abbott has given the government an excuse to ditch the proposed referendum to recognise local government in the constitution, if it wants to. Abbott today advised Australians who did not understand the issue to vote against the change. The opposition leader has in principle backed recognition, but said while campaigning today in Victoria: “If you are not fully persuaded, don’t vote for it, because our constitution is far too important to be trifled with.”

The government is equivocal about the referendum, both because it appears doomed to failure and it limits Kevin Rudd’s options on election dates. If the government wants to persevere with the referendum it cannot go to the people before September 14, because of the timetable it requires. This is despite the fact that Anthony Albanese, who was minister for local government until the reshuffle, said at the weekend that an election could be brought forward to mid-August and still be accompanied by the referendum.

The opposition has been sharply divided over the referendum, with Abbott caught in the middle. Many Coalition senators crossed the floor or abstained when the legislation was voted on in the Senate and the Liberal federal council and some state Liberal divisions have voted against constitutional recognition. But opposition spokesman on local government Barnaby Joyce has been a passionate advocate for a yes vote.

Abbott said the referendum had been “comprehensively mishandled by the government.” It had failed to consult properly with state governments and had been “very unfair” in the allocation of funds between the yes and no cases.

“The yes camp is getting 40 times the funding that the no camp is getting,” Abbott said. “This thing has been done badly and undemocratically. I certainly think there is a case for ensuring that existing federal programs for local government can continue without constitutional doubt,” he said.

“I have enormous reservations about the way the government have done this.”