The campaign against the local government referendum was finally wound up on Friday, 11 October 2011. Members of the two key committees lunched together – at their own cost – in a restaurant on Sydney’s North Shore.
The referendum was supported by both government and opposition. The Prime Minister Julia Gillard decided that it should be held on the day of the election, 13 September 2013. However, when she was succeeded by Kevin Rudd, he decided that the election should be held on 7 September, before the earliest date under the Constitution for the holding of the referendum, which was therefore not proceeded with at this time.
It is likely that Mr Rudd would have known that the referendum was unlikely to pass, no doubt because of the efforts of the No campaigners. This was notwithstanding the fact that the government had heavily loaded the funding from taxpayers in favour of the Yes case, and put through legislation to limit the circulation of the Yes/No case, something that ACM almost alone had argued against in a strong submission when Parliament was earlier reviewing the law. Then the Local Government Association decided to only fund the Yes case from ratepayers’ funds. The media did not treat the referendum as particularly newsworthy.
ACM had decided not to take a formal position on the referendum because of the terms of its mission, but to leave it to members to decide how they would wish to be involved, if at all.
One committee was the Parliamentary Vote No Committee, consisting of Senators and Members of the House of Representatives opposed to the referendum.
The other was the Citizens’ Voted No Committee chaired by Julian Leeser, who had been the youngest delegate that the1998 Constitutional Convention. The citizens committee – at the expense of the members – incorporated a company limited by guarantee to maintain not only proper management, but also an audit of all monies raised. Nevertheless, being strong constitutionalists most ACM supporters opposed the referendum.
Julian and Tim Wilson were the two leading very effective citizens’ spokesmen, along with former ministers Nick Minchin and Peter Reith. ACM was very well represented, although as an organisation we took no formal position on the referendum because it was outside our formal mission. Among the original members were David Flint, Jai Martinkovits (whose piece on the referendum appeared in the Daily Telegraph), and Julian Leeser, with Malcolm Badgery and David Elliott being invited to join us. The committee was extremely active on all media platforms. In addition, polling was arranged to ascertain the level of public support.
Apart from an article requested by Quadrant, my role was to do the initial draft of the Vote No Case, an identical role to the one I had in 1999. With amendments, the draft went through the Citizens’ Committee and was about to be approved by the Parliamentary Committee for inclusion in the booklet being prepared by the Australian Electoral Commission when the new Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, announced that the election would be held on 7 and not on 14 September. But under the Constitution the earliest date on which the referendum vote could have been held was on 14 September, so the referendum did not proceed – on this occasion.
Although another date could have been settled, the cost of calling the people to a separate vote was obviously too much. The referendum has therefore been set aside and if it were to proceed, would require new legislation.
Although the referendum had the approval of the Coalition, the strongest opposition came from Coalition MPs and the DLP. There was also an opposition within the broader Labor Party but Labor MPs are of course bound by the caucus pledge.
The two committees engaged in very valuable work which will be particularly useful if it is necessary at some time in the future to revive the campaign. The two citizens’ committees followed ACM’s practice in 1999 of holding regular “high command” national telephone hook ups, to which some members of the Parliamentary Committee joined. This was a crucial aspect of the 1999 campaign when key ACM convenors and directors joined with key ministers in national hook up to decide on our campaign. In the last weeks this was a daily occurrence at 7.00 am, which I had the honour to chair. Of course there was no need for the Local Government Committee to meet so often so early in the campaign.
The campaign was successful. It put the No case on the map, inserting it into a mainly uninterested media. And what a good dry run it was if there is ever again a referendum to impose a politicians’ republic on Australia or to ditch our Flag.