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Coalition leadership division flares on local government referendum

Eric Abetz is one of the Senators who abstained from voting. AAP/Alan Porritt

Anyone who cares about the referendum to recognise local government in the constitution must be appalled at the way it is being botched.

Millions of dollars are being spent on this vote, to be held with the general election, but if it ever had a chance, the politicians seem determined to sabotage it.

It’s the last thing on the mind of a government that is a shambles in general, and the opposition is sharply divided on the issue, with Senate Liberal leader Eric Abetz making his opposition clear while Coalition local government spokesman Barnaby Joyce, also a member of the leadership group, is campaigning strongly for the proposal.

What happened in the Senate on Monday night, when the legislation on the referendum was put, shows the attitude.

Both sides are formally supporting the move (the opposition says it is not standing in the way of the question being put to the people), so the legislation was passed.

But seven Coalition senators crossed the floor and many others deliberately abstained or didn’t vote.

The Coalition backbenchers are not surprising – there are strong feelings in the Liberal organisation and there was licence from the leadership - but it is more significant when frontbenchers are missing.

Those not voting included Abetz, Mathias Cormann, Michaelia Cash, Mitch Fifield, David Johnston, Scott Ryan, Concetta Fierravanti-Wells and Michael Ronaldson.

A spokeswoman for Johnston said he had not abstained but had a function and thought he had a pair (although Abetz told Sky that pairs don’t operate on constitutional matters).

Shadow attorney-general George Brandis was also absent. He was on the ABC’s Q&A, which apparently these days takes precedence over parliament. On the program as well was Labor’s Matt Thistlethwaite (a parliamentary secretary).

It is true that when a government bill is not being opposed there is a more lax view on whether Coalition people vote. These votes, where the result is not in doubt, are called “mickeys” (as in mickey mouse).

Still, in this case there was a strong message being sent.

Asked about not voting, the Liberals were anxious to point out that ministers Penny Wong, Bob Carr, Stephen Conroy (Senate leader), Don Farrell, and Joe Ludwig also didn’t vote.

When contacted, a number of offices initially said the ministers had pairs. Later it was said they were in cabinet and had the whip’s approval to miss the vote because the required absolute majority would be there.

Obviously in the ministers’ cases they were not registering a protest but it was a bad look.

The government has generally mishandled the referendum.

It left it to the last minute to decide whether to go ahead with it.

Then it gave opponents a rationale for outrage when it said it would give $10 million to finance the yes case and only $500,000 to the no case case.

Thus Fierravanti-Wells said: “While in principle I support the steps to put beyond doubt the validity of payments from the Commonwealth to local government, this Labor government has mismanaged this issue”, mentioning the rush and the lopsided public funding.

Tony Abbott has spoken out more strongly about the under-funding of the no case than he has in support of the yes case.

Abbott has said the Liberals support in principle recognition of local government in the constitution. But Abetz, a member of the Coalition leadership group, told the Senate this week: “There is no doubt that this legislation will enhance central control over local government”.

On Sky today he was frank, saying he had won on the issue at the Liberal federal council (which opposed recognition) but lost in shadow cabinet. “In politics you win some, you lose some”, he said.

At a meeting of Coalition chiefs of staff today Liberal federal director Brian Loughnane urged that whatever views people had on the referendum they should keep them to themselves. Loughnane is trying to avoid distracting conflicting statements.

Abbott would have been better to have made it clear in the first place that he could not offer the government total support to the referendum. On the other hand, Labor wanted to wedge the opposition, so it mightn’t have cared.

Never mind the $10.5 million of taxpayers’ money that’s being spent on something that increasingly is regarded as having little chance of success.

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