Overflowing household rubbish bins (file image)
The bill for a referendum on local government was thrown out 10 years ago. Image by Bianca De Marchi/AAP PHOTOS

Lurking local council referendum bill is old rubbish

David Williams October 13, 2023

A 2013 referendum bill on local councils is still before the Senate.


False. The time limit on the proposed amendment passed a decade ago.

A social media video claims a bill from 2013 is still before the Senate, proposing a referendum to acknowledge local councils in the Australian Constitution.

This is false. There is a time limit on propositions to change the constitution.

A representative for the federal parliament told AAP FactCheck the Constitution Alteration (Local Government) 2013 bill lapsed six months after it was passed by both houses, having never been put to the public.

The claim is made in a Facebook video – largely a confusing mashup of multiple sovereign citizen motifs, including about the United Nations, Aboriginal land councils and the World Economic Forum.

Text with the post states: “The referendum and the land grab using the one nation people. You heard of the Aboriginal Land Councils. The Bill still sits in the Senate.

“Also our Councils ‘Local Bodies’ ‘Local Governments’ should NOT exist as We said ‘No’ in the 1974 and 1988 Referendum. So Why are They Existing?”

A screenshot from the Facebook video.
 The video’s claims are simply false.  

The main claim in the video has nothing to do with Aboriginal land councils, but with local government.

From the 20sec mark, the speaker in the video accurately cites two referendums in 1974 and 1988.

Both related to altering the constitution to acknowledge local councils – the first to allow the federal government to grant financial assistance to local government, and the second to recognise local government in the constitution.

Both referendums failed.

“(Then prime minister) Julia Gillard … announced in 2013 there was going to be a referendum in regard to acknowledging local councils,” the speaker says (video mark 1min 20sec).

“That bill currently sits in the Australian Senate, unbeknown to 99 per cent of the Australian people. It currently sits in the Senate.

“Now, what they intend to do with that bill, that will amend Section 96 of the Constitution, to provide funding from the Commonwealth government to local councils. This has all been set up and the Aboriginal people are being used as scapegoats.”

The speaker doesn’t explain the link between the bill and Indigenous people.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard (file)
 The referendum was put on hold after Kevin Rudd replaced Julia Gillard (centre) as Labor’s leader. 

But the main claim is false.

It is true that in May 2013 then Labor prime minister Julia Gillard announced the government intended to hold a referendum seeking to amend Section 96 of the Constitution, giving the federal government the power to directly fund local governments, rather than through the states.

The history and implications of the referendum, as well as its echoes of the 1974 and 1988 referendums, can be read here.

An explanation of the controversies surrounding the proposed referendum can be read here.

But the proposed 2013 referendum was never held.

It was due to be put to the Australian people on September 14, originally the same day as the federal election, but was put on hold after Kevin Rudd relaced Ms Gillard as prime minister and changed the election date to September 7.

Labor was defeated and new Liberal prime minister Tony Abbott formally killed off the referendum.

A federal parliament representative told AAP FactCheck the bill had lapsed.

“I can confirm that the Constitution Alteration (Local Government) 2013 passed both Houses in June 2013 and that it does not currently sit with the Senate,” they said in an email.

Section 128 of the Constitution requires that any alteration to the Constitution be put to the electors no more than six months after its passage through both Houses. As the alteration was not voted on, the proposition has now lapsed.”

The Senate chamber at Parliament House (file image)
 There is not a 10-year-old local government referendum bill in the Senate. 

Constitutional law expert Cheryl Saunders, from Melbourne Law School, said the bill had nothing to do with the Facebook post’s claim about land.

“‘Recognition’ of local government has been considered before (and the proposition rejected at referendum),” she told AAP FactCheck in an email.

“Opposition to it has nothing to do with a ‘land grab’. It has been (and probably still would be) controversial because it is seen as unnecessarily centralising (and, in that sense, perhaps, a ‘power grab’ – although that’s an overstatement as well).”

Prof Saunders said the proposal was controversial due to concerns about unintended consequences of the federal government taking away some state powers, such as the ability to dismiss poor performing local councils.

The Verdict

The claim that a 2013 bill proposing a constitutional amendment still sits in the Senate is false.

The proposed referendum concerned the recognition of local councils and granting the federal government power to directly fund local government bodies.

A representative for the federal parliament told AAP FactCheck the bill lapsed due to the six-month time limit in putting proposed constitutional amendments to voters.

The bill had nothing to do with Aboriginal land councils or a land grab.

False – The claim is inaccurate.

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