I run to the river; it was boiling… Federalism needs scrapping, not reforming

We never pity Wile E. Coyote when he notices that he’s run out over a cliff and nothing stands between him and a hundred foot drop.  Instead, we laugh.  It’s hilarious that a person could be so limited in vision that they didn’t notice that they’re unsupported by anything, hovering only due to ignorance of the bigger picture.

And so it is with supporters of Australian federalism.  They’ve run out over the cliff, fixated upon the idea that they can successfully use a 16th Century governance model to solve 21st Century problems, and now all that’s left is for them to realise that they’re going to fall.

And so it is with Reforming Australian Federal Democracy by Cheryl Saunders and Michael Crommelin.  In it, they set out ten ‘principles’ which they believe should guide reform of the federation because, they assert, federalism and democracy ‘are inextricably entwined’.  But beyond the usual slogans, we never really crack the nut of why we still entertain the ‘ritual invocations of the federal balance’ (to use Anthony Mason’s dismissive language).

Let’s start with the reasons given why federalism isn’t (despite all the evidence) a terrible idea:

Federalism is a defining feature of the stable democracy on which Australians set such store.  Its rationales lie in history,the logistics of a demanding geography and the reality of territorially organised communities, mobility notwithstanding. In addition, however, in the 21st century, federalism offers positive solutions for the people of complex societies in a globalised world, in Australia and internationally.  Public institutions at different levels can be responsive to the needs of their communities in different ways.  Some levels of government are better suited to policy development and service delivery on particular matters than others.  Representative institutions at different levels offer citizens multiple opportunities for democratic participation.  Multi-level government has the potential for experimentation, diversity and development of best practice.  It also offers the efficiency and effectiveness required for the formulation and implementation of acceptable policies that are informed by and responsive to conditions on the ground.

Not a single one of these sentences — either alone or in combination — justifies the elaborately expensive, stone stupid, and degenerate system of government that we have in Australia.

Federalism is not about achieving things.  It is about preventing the government from being able to do things.  A baffling game of rules is imposed that prevents any one body from accumulating enough power to actually govern.  Thus, the vast majority of political problems we have in Australia are in areas where there is no clear demarcation between powers: health, education, Indigenous rights, economic policy.

Take the opening salvo: ‘its rationales lie in history’.  Federalism occurred in Australia, Canada, and the United States specifically because the individual colonies did not want to lose their power.  A loss of power would mean petty chieftains would have to get real jobs and could no longer justify their exorbitant salaries.  Why do we still have premiers?  Because the political class in the late 1800s didn’t want to get swept into the bin of irrelevancy.  Thus, we are stuck with a system that suits their short-sighted needs, but can’t get uniform health services or education standards rolled out across the nation.

Federalism offers no solutions that wouldn’t be more efficient and effective under a centralised model.  We even have the data to prove it.  In the United States, the probability that a child will be diagnosed with ADHD is significantly higher if the child is being seen by a doctor in a state that provides subsidised treatment.  The idea that two nearly identical people can stand ten metres apart and have radically different health outcomes is absurd.  But we see the same problem occur again and again.  Two people standing ten metres apart in Australia might be subject to different criminal laws.  A group of three members of a bikie organisation are committing an offence if they even walk down the street together on this side of the river, but they can go to the pub and place bets together on the horse racing on the other side.  Education standards vary wildly and unpredictably for no good reason.  And professional registration continues to be a bugbear for people moving interstate.

Once upon a time in an age when women and non-whites couldn’t vote, federalism probably made sense.  If you centralised government in a large country, the organs of power would be distant and inaccessible.  Early discussions about the High Court, for example, even questioned whether it should have a building in Canberra when it could instead move from capital city to capital city, providing justice like a touring circus provides popcorn.  But in today’s age of the Internet and telephones and jumbo jets and fast rail, why do we need State governments?  If proximity is such a big deal, split Western Australia in half and give the people of Broome their own parliament.  Canberra, on the other hand, is less than a day trip away from Melbourne and Sydney.

At a theory level, there is no good reason for federalism to continue.  In Australia, residents of the territories receive fewer democratic protections than the citizens of the states and my ability to control the terms under which I’m governed are constrained by constitutional provisions which privilege state-dwellers.  This has the practical effect of disenfranchising Indigenous citizens in the Northern Territory.  If Australians really wanted to enshrine equality in its democratic system, they would abolish the states.

To support their vision of reform, they propose ten ‘principles’:

What follows is a sketch of the steps that might be taken along this path.  The ten principles summarising these steps are attached.  Some require a return to the basics of the Australian constitutional system.  But the basics are informed by the conditions of the 21st century, which place ever greater weight on the values of diversity, innovation and democratic community in a world in which globalisation threatens them all.

I always worry when people want to ‘return to the basics of the Australian constitutional system’.  It has a ‘Reclaim Australia’ vibe to it: the drafters of the constitution were an enlightened group of omniscient wizards who designed a perfect system that has been corrupted by our sinful ways.  Worse: the problems we are trying to solve today were unimaginable to Sir Samuel Griffith’s beard.  If they were trying to form Australia today, they would probably not opt for a federal model.  Why do we keep trying to use an outdated, antiquated model of government?

Here are the ten ‘principles’:

  1. The purpose of federalism reform should be to invigorate and enrich Australian democracy.
  2. In Australia, democracy is organised through different levels of government, each of which derives limited authority to govern from the Australian people, or a segment of them, to whom it is accountable.
  3. Democratic accountability relies on the elected Parliaments of the Commonwealth and the States and territories, in which public deliberation on significant decisions can take place and through which transparency can be secured.
  4. The Australian Constitution confers limited authority on both the Commonwealth and State levels of government having regard to which level of government is more appropriate to do what.
  5. Dealings between levels of government must be conducted with the mutual respect, trust and good faith that are due to democratically elected representatives of the Australian people.
  6. Intergovernmental collaboration is an integral part of Australian federal democracy when properly used; it should be undertaken only for purposes that are clear and publically justifiable by reference to a specific need, using mechanisms that are consistent with democratic principle and practice.
  7. The Australian Constitution provides authority to the Commonwealth level of government to raise the public revenues that are required not only to meet its own constitutional responsibilities but also to assist the States to meet theirs.
  8. Each State is accountable to the people of the State for the expenditure of public moneys derived from public revenues raised by the Commonwealth but surplus to its own constitutional responsibilities.
  9. Australian federal democracy recognises a principle of solidarity that requires horizontal sharing of public revenues to redress substantial economic disparities among States and territories.
  10. The values of the composite concept of Australian federal democracy apply also in relation to other levels of Australian government, including indigenous self-government, local and city government and territory government.

None of these principles is much truck.  The most galling is (9) which uses the progressive language of ‘solidarity’ to justify a regressive form of impotent government.  But the curious one is (4): there’s no task, no policy, no programme that is more appropriate for the State to perform.  The logical consequence of (4) is the complete abolition of the States.  The States are inefficient, ineffective, and incompetent.  It is always preferable to resolve issues at the national level so that our solutions benefit all Australians equally.

Let us unite as Australians.  Conservatives and progressives alike are calling for us to be one Australia, with one constitution, with one government.  Let us put aside the archaic divisions between us.  Let us abandon the system where we’re even forced to ‘compete’ against each other.  Let us stop subsidising the low rent politicians who are too corrupt and incapable to make it into Federal Parliament.  Let us unite, at last, as one Australia.

Abolish the states.

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Author: Mark Fletcher

Mark Fletcher is a Canberra-based blogger and policy wonk who writes about conservatism, atheism, and popular culture. Read his blog at OnlyTheSangfroid. He tweets at @ClothedVillainy

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