It's a case of better late than never for the announcement of a referendum on recognising local government in the Australian Constitution, says constitutional law expert George Williams.

The federal government said today that a referendum on Constitutional recognition of local government will be held along with the federal election on 14 September.

This will be Australia's first referendum since the republic vote in 1999.

Announcing the referendum the Prime Minister Julia Gillard said: “We are asking the Australian people to support a small but important change to our Constitution so that the existing practice of Federal Government support for local communities is formally recognised."

UNSW constitutional law expert Professor George Williams says it's a case of better late than never.

"The referendum has merit, but has been left dreadfully late. The government’s expert panel reported in December 2011, but it is only in recent weeks that the government has been seized with the idea of adopting its recommendation to run this referendum.

"Local government relies heavily on federal funds to provide important community services such as the Roads to Recovery program. There is grave concern about whether this program could survive a constitutional challenge, and indeed whether the Commonwealth can directly fund child-care centres, libraries and other local government services," Professor Williams says.

"It makes sense to change the Constitution to fix this problem."

UNSW Law has a number of constitutional and public law experts available for comment:

Shipra Chordia, Director of the Federalism Project within the Gilbert + Tobin Centre of Public Law +61 2 9385 6871

Professor Rosalind Dixon, comparative constitutional law and constitutional design +61 2 9385 6964

Dr Paul Kildea, Director of the Referendums Project within the Gilbert + Tobin Centre of Public Law +61 2 9385 9652

Dr Nicola McGarrity, constitutional law and reform +61 2 9385 3445

Professor Andrew Lynch, Director of the Gilbert + Tobin Centre of Public Law +61 2 9385 9654

Professor George Williams, Anthony Mason Professor of Public Law +61 2 9385 5459


UNSW Media Office contact: Steve Offner,  +61 2 9385 1583, 0424 580 208