Heed Hawke’s call – Australian federalism is an idea whose time has ended


Bede Harris, Charles Sturt University

Former prime minister Bob Hawke’s recent call for the state governments to be abolished is worthy of support.

Labor has historically been in favour of centralisation, while the Coalition has supported federalism. So, Hawke’s position is not surprising. But leaving aside party politics, there are good reasons why Australia should consider this change to its Constitution.

Solves no problem and confers no benefit

The reason Australia has a federal Constitution is a negative one. It was due to fear from the colonies of domination by each other or by the new national government.

Taken at its best, the adoption of federalism in preference to a unitary system was the necessary price of creating Australia as a nation. At its worst, it was a base compromise pandering to colonial jealousies, which now saddles Australia with an unnecessarily complex and expensive form of government.

Unlike in countries such as Nigeria, where federalism serves the purpose of providing for ethnic autonomy, Australian federalism solves no problem and confers no benefit.

The supposed major benefit of federalism is that it provides protection against tyranny by diffusing power. But federalism does not affect what governments can do to individuals, only which government may do them. Distributions of power are not as effective a protection of liberty as are restraints on power.

Federalism cannot provide an effective limit to what the state and Commonwealth parliaments can in combination do to the individual. Only a Bill of Rights can do that.

So, Australia is left with nine governments and 15 legislative chambers for a population of 24 million.

The costs of this are staggering. In 2002, the annual costs of federalism to the economy was estimated at A$40 billion – a figure that would be much higher today.

This covers costs such as running state and territory governments, costs to the Commonwealth of interacting with the states, and compliance costs to business. But it excludes intangible costs in the form of time and inconvenience: think of simple matters such as car registration or entry into a new school system experienced by anyone who has moved interstate.

Public opinion in favour

There is ample evidence that Australians, notoriously resistant to constitutional change, would support abolishing the states.

A 2014 survey by the Griffith Federalism Project found 71% of respondents favoured changing the current system. Among this majority, there were preferences for different allocations of power between national, regional and local governments.

The idea of replacing the states with regions defined along rational economic lines was an interesting feature of these results. But even more significant were the results of a 2014 survey commissioned by lobby group Beyond Federation, in which 78% of respondents supported the idea of Australia having a single set of laws for the country. So, it seems that constitutional reform to abolish the states would be well received by voters.

Making such a change would mean that, as in New Zealand and the UK, Australia would have a single (national) parliament with comprehensive lawmaking power. That parliament could delegate lawmaking authority to regions and/or local governments, in the same way as state parliaments currently delegate power to local authorities.

However, there would be no more disputes over which lawmaking power the national parliament had, and no doubt that national law overrode regional and local law. The legal system would be much simpler, and compliance costs to business and individuals radically reduced.

Australia would also have one department of education, one department of agriculture, one department of the environment and so on, instead of multiple agencies currently.

Disputes over shares of Commonwealth revenue allocated to the states is a constant feature of federal-state relations. All that would be a thing of the past. Expenditure could be determined according to the needs of people, irrespective of where they lived and without reference to artificial state boundaries.

The current focus on “reforming” the federation avoids the real issue: why have federalism at all? If we were writing a constitution from new, would we really recreate the current nine-government system? If the answer to that is “no”, there is a good reason to change it.

The Conversation

Bede Harris, Senior Lecturer in Law, Charles Sturt University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Ruddslide


The ‘Kevin 07’ campaign has been waged and won with victory for the ‘true believers.’ After 11 ½ years in opposition, the Australian Labor Party (ALP) has swept to victory in the Australian national election, with the former Prime Minister (John Howard) loosing his own seat in the process. Not only has Kevin Rudd and the ALP swept John Howard and the Liberal-National Party government from office, it has now also seen off the leadership of John Howard, Peter Costello and Mark Vaile, along with several other high ranking Coalition ministers.

In the wake of Kevin Rudd’s 6% swing against the Howard government, the Liberal and National Party Coalition is in disarray and will now need to rebuild following it’s decimation in Saturday’s national election. The Coalition has lost government, its leadership, many party MPs and will loose its Senate majority in July 2008.

Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull and Brendan Nelson have all declared themselves as being contenders for leadership of the Liberal Party, and we are yet to hear who will stand for the National Party Leadership. Whoever does win leadership of the opposition parties, they face what is potentially a two-term opposition period (at least) given the extent of the Rudd victory.

Australians are now looking forward to the end of Workchoices and other draconian industrial relations legislation brought into being by the Howard government during their final term. There are also great hopes for the ratification of the Kyoto Protocol on CO2 emissions, as well as other climate change and environmental initiatives. Progress is also expected in many other key areas including health, education, refugees, social welfare, infrastructure, federal-state cooperation, defence policy and overseas intervention, etc.

The Australian electorate expects much from the new Rudd government and I for one do not expect that this trust will be in vain. Kevin Rudd is a man of great intellect, determination and action, and I think Australia will be delighted with his approach to government and leadership in the coming weeks and months.

Already Kevin Rudd has begun his role of leadership, along with deputy Julia Gillard, visiting a school today in order to get his education revolution under way immediately. He has also accepted an invitation to Bali in the next week or so to attend a conference on climate change and CO2 reduction targets. Already he has begun work on ratifying the Kyoto Protocol on Greenhouse Gas Emission Reduction Targets. This is a wonderful first fruit and a sign of what is hopefully to come.

Australia is a great nation, with a great economic track record in recent years ~ however, our reputation as being a compassionate and just people has suffered in recent times. I for one will welcome a return to a more just and socially responsible government and nation.