JUST 17 words will be added to the Constitution if the referendum to give financial recognition to local government succeeds.
Local Government Minister Anthony Albanese and Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus unveiled the proposed change in Canberra on Thursday, describing it as "modest" and "sensible".
In the event of a successful "yes" vote on September 14, section 96 of the Constitution would be amended to read: "Financial assistance to States and local government bodies - During a period of ten years after the establishment of the Commonwealth and thereafter until the Parliament otherwise provides, the Parliament may grant financial assistance to any State, or to any local government body formed by a law of a State."
"It is an important, necessary but minor change to the Constitution - a piece of housekeeping to ensure the Constitution reflects the modern reality of the way that the Australian political system works," Mr Albanese said.
Both ministers stressed the proposed wording, based on the advice of an expert panel, had been chosen to ensure state power was not diminished.
They denied existing programs like Roads to Recovery would be at risk if the referendum failed, at the same time rejecting the assertion the proposed change was purely symbolic.
The government passed legislation in June last year protecting Commonwealth funding for hundreds of programs after the High Court ruled federal payments to Scripture Union Queensland to provide chaplaincy services were invalid.
Mr Albanese said he was optimistic the referendum would pass, pointing to the fact it had bipartisan and strong grassroots support.
He also responded to criticism, particularly from the Coalition, that the referendum had been set up for failure.
"This has been years in the making," he said.
"We've gone out of our way to get the broadest possible support."
A bill passed the Senate on Wednesday night enabling the government to run a $10.5 million civic education campaign promoting the yes and no cases.
The government is now seeking public feedback on the draft constitutional amendment bill, which it will introduce in the Parliament in two weeks.
Australian Local Government Association vice president Troy Pickard welcomed the bill's release and urged the Coalition to support it.
But unlike the ministers, he said the change was needed to protect existing funding arrangements between the Commonwealth and local governments.
"Including local government in the Constitution is about securing federal funding for vital local services and infrastructure for communities across the country," Mr Pickard said.
"Without financial recognition in the Constitution (certain) programs ... are at risk of High Court challenge and neither councils nor communities can afford that risk."
The referendum ballot paper is expected to read:
"Do you support a bill for an act to alter the Constitution to recognise local government by stating that the Commonwealth can grant financial assistance to local government, including assistance for community and other services."
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