Monday, November 16, 2009

The States and all that

I find the discussion of the Australian Federation a fascinating topic. There is almost no one you will find that will tell you they think the Australian system of Government is optimal.

Most will agree that the current division of responsibility between the States and the Federal parliament are anachronistic at best, and totally dysfunctional at worst. You just look at the mis-fit between planning aged care and hospitals.

Most will agree that were you to have States there is no logic about the current boundaries of them, especially the fact that the vast inland is entirely run by coastal capital cities. Equally populations rely upon service delivery from capitals that aren't their closest.

A few, like Tony Abbott will suggest constructive moves to rectify this. His proposal for an extra part of section 51 of the Constitution to allow unilateral Federal takeove of powers looks both practical and achievable.

As Craig Emerson hhas recently noted plans to abolish the states are doomed to fail. Importantly the kind of referendum mentioned in the article wouldn't of itself aboloish the states, a federal referendum could expunge all reference to the States, it could provide the Federal parliament the power to make laws about anything, but it can't actually abolish a state.

Meanwhile the head of the department of PM&C Terry Moran has been flagging Federal Government frustration with the ongoing process of reform through COAG. In her article Michelle Grattan notes that;

In a September round table involving several former premiers, Bracks made some pointed criticisms of the COAG process - namely an overcrowded program and the problem presented by the ministerial councils. ''There is probably too much all at once in terms of the COAG reform agenda … it needs to be prioritised and scheduled,'' Bracks said. The ministerial councils were ''blocks to reform'' because ''the vested interests come out there''; he urged scrapping most of them.

John Wanna, politics professor at the Australian National University and an expert on federalism, says the system is at ''a crossroads. It's not clear yet that we've embraced a new federalism. There's a lot of discussion about a new agenda for federalism - which is collaborative, co-operative and with governments deciding where each level can add value. We've heard the talk, but we're not yet seeing a lot of evidence of outcomes in benefits for the community.'' But, he adds, it may take 10 to 20-years - a timetable that doesn't quite fit the Rudd temperament.

The issue confronting COAG is also that it struggles to maintain one agenda, because everything changes quite regularly. It only takes one government to change to shift the whole agenda. The comment by Bracks about Ministerial Councils is perhaps the most important. These need to be simplified from the current list. There is also probably a case for institutionalising the secretariat of COAG and Ministerial Councils under COAG, rather than under PM&C and the variouis Federal Departments. The COAG Reform Council has its own Secretariat, but it is also hard to see the relationship any more between the reform council and COAG itself.

But the last word on Federalism is that we need to remember the concept of adding states - there are still some who will remind us of the space reserved for New Zealand and why there is a Canverra suburb named after a New Zealand plant. Federalism is a really good way of bringing disparate sovereign states together to form a new state. It worked in the USA, it worked here. In many ways it is a process underway in Europe. It seems self-evident that it is a process that all the Pacific Island states need to undertake together, and then with Australia and New Zealand create a Federation of the South Pacific.

But things that seem logical do not alwats come about.

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