Bernardi calls for Coalition to oppose local government referendum

Cory Bernadi is calling on Tony Abbott to oppose the local government referendum. AAP/Alan Porritt

Liberal Senator Cory Bernadi has called on the federal Coalition to oppose the referendum to recognise local government in the constitution, which will be held with the September 14 election.

Senator Bernadi, from South Australia and the party’s right, said the Coalition’s in-principle support for the referendum had never been discussed in the party room, and needed to be before any decision was made.

Trying to recognise local government in the constitution is “against Liberal philosophy,” he told The Conversation. He said it went against Liberal support for state rights and federalism generally.

Senator Bernardi’s remarks reflect the deep divisions within Coalition ranks over the referendum - which is likely to fail because of significant opposition to it. Several states are against.

Opposition leader Tony Abbott today qualified the opposition’s support for the referendum. He also said he would allow “at least two members of the Coalition” to cross the floor so they could prepare a “no” case against, to enable “a proper debate about any proposal that the government puts forward.”

He said the government still had not taken the opposition or the public into its confidence over the precise wording of the referendum question, which will be to give local government recognition to ensure the constitutionality of grants it gets from the Commonwealth.

“We have some reservations about it, because we think that the government hasn’t done the work necessary to get a yes vote,” Mr Abbott told a news conference, “It is rushing this through in the lead up to an election.”

“The other reservation that we’ve got is that, frankly, they shouldn’t be muddying the waters of this election, which ought to be a referendum on Julia Gillard and the carbon tax rather than a referendum on local government.

"That said, since Malcolm Turnbull’s time as opposition leader, we have supported an appropriate recognition of local government and we certainly do think that it’s important to continue the Commonwealth’s ability to be able to pay money under programs such as Roads to Recovery direct to local government.”

When pressed on whether he would campaign for a yes vote, Abbott ignored the question.

The opposition leader is now in a difficult position on the referendum with many in his party, especially in the Senate against it, but his local government spokesman Barnaby Joyce in favour and a long record of the opposition backing the idea.

Abbott said any constitutional change should be properly considered by the Australian people and it was right and proper that those who wanted to see the proposal exposed to full scrutiny should have the chance to make their case.

Senator Bernardi said he believed that deputy opposition leader Julie Bishop had confirmed there had not been a discussion in shadow cabinet or in the party room.

He said the Liberal Federal Council last year had voted by a two-thirds majority to oppose any constitutional recognition of local governments in the constitution. The Victorian division had overwhelmingly rejected it.

“You can’t make a determination on a matter like this without discussion in the party room,” Bernadi said.