Saturday, May 22, 2010

New State arguments 2 - no states or new states

Discussions on the possible revival of the New England New State Movement has already raised the question why not just abolish the states altogether?  Leaving aside the constitutional difficulties involved, there are other issues to be considered.

Writing in 1926, the Movement's constitutional expert, David Drummond, suggested that there were then three schools of constitutional though in Australia - no states, new states and states' righters.

The no states' school suggested that all states should be abolished and replaced by a devolved system of provinces or regions working under central control. The new states' school suggested that the existing state system should be replaced by a larger number of states more closely related to community of interest. The states' right school believed in the preservation of the existing system.

Drummond dismissed the states' right school out of hand. They had failed to recognise, he argued, that Australia was now a nation. The question of the appropriate distribution of powers between Commonwealth and states had to be addressed, while existing state boundaries did not properly reflect geography.

The distinctions between no states and new states was more complicated because there were common arguments. Most no state supporters believed that there had to be some form of provincial or regional administrations because of the country's great diversity. What, then, was the difference?

To Drummond's mind, the difference lay in the powers to be accorded to the new states, provinces or regional administrations. Practical politics dictated that, with delegated powers, the centre would always override as political considerations dictated.

To support his case, he pointed to the experience of local government in NSW. This, he suggested, suffered from constant interference. To avoid this, state or provincial powers needed constitutional protection. However, there also needed to be a degree of flexibility to allow for distribution of powers to be changed as needs change.

Drummond was writing against a background set by the 1924 NSW Cohen Royal Commission into New States. New States supporters had forced its establishment and indeed had a representative on it, but the then Premier (Sir George Fuller) did not intend it to succeed. Importantly, he appointed William Holman KC as counsel assisting. Holman, a former Premier, had good reason to dislike the new state cause.

The Commission concluded that there were problems with the NSW system. However, those problems could be best addressed by an effective system of regional governments within NSW. The evidence presented and the subsequent report canvassed most of the arguments that you will find today.

Discussions on regional councils then rested until towards the end of the Second World War. Discussions on post-war reconstruction re-energised the debate. What type of country do we want? How should it be organised and governed?

In Armidale, two academics at the New England University College - James Belshaw (Economics) and Alan Voisey (Geology) - launched a movement to create regional councils as a way of encouraging effective decentralisation. Unlike his son, Belshaw was not a new stater. He believed that regional councils within the existing system could achieve results.  

The new movement quickly gathered strength. When it became clear that the NSW Government would never grant the councils real power, the regional councils movement turned into a renewed New England New State Movement. The non-new state Belshaw found himself briefly as secretary of the new state movement!

Convinced that regional councils were a dead end, but still not convinced about new states, Belshaw turned to the concept of selective decentralisation. Why not concentrate available resources on building up a few country centres to critical mass, he argued?

This idea was picked up by Max Neutz and others at ANU and became the basis of the later Whitlam Government's growth centre strategy.

My point in all this is that Drummond's 1926 arguments still provide a valid analytical framework. Again leaving aside the difficulties of changing the existing constitution, if we are to abolish the states and replace them with regional or provincial councils, how do we ensure that Canberra  doesn't simply override when political exigencies dictate?  

This post is one of a series discussing issues associated with the creation of a New England New State. If you would like to look at the whole series, you can either search on new state arguments or go to the introductory post where you will find a full list of posts.     


Greg said...

Interesting post Jim.

Any regional form of government must have a constitutional basis otherwise it will inevitably be over-ridden and interfered with by the central government. In Newcastle, for instance, the state is constantly interfering in local decision making and has even previously resorted to sacking the council when it suited them. No doubt this interference is repeated elsewhere.

Without a constitutional basis how can regional government even guarantee it's survival, let alone have ability to pass laws, raise revenue and allocate spending as it sees fit?

Abolition of the states would be a constitutional nightmare. Anyone arguing for abolition of the states is, in my opinion, setting themselves up for failure. I just do not see that as achievable.

However, new states is achievable and could happen next year if we wanted it, without any rewriting of our existing constitutional framework. It is also exceedingly logical that regional identities be recognised and that they govern themselves as they see fit within the framework of our federal system. It is not a wacky idea at all and it is not destined to fail from the start.

All we have to do is identify the geographical areas that are logical units for self government. New England is one such area that has long been identified, along with Riverina, Capricornia (central Qld) and far north Qld.

Furthermore there is historical precedent. Qld, ACT, Vic, SA, Tas and NZ were all carved out of NSW. Why that should have been set in stone, never to be revisited after the formation of the ACT nearly a century ago bears no logic at all.

In fact with greater population and strong regional identity there is an even greater argument for new states now than there was in 1850 when the last state (Queensland) was created. At that time Australia's entire population was less than the present day city of Newcastle. At the time of federation the whole of NSW had fewer people than present day New England.

My point is that there was a recognised need for decentralised government in the 19th Century, yet since Federation only the ACT and NT have achieved that despite profound demographic changes that have occurred since and despite the changing needs of the populations within sometimes large and unique geographic areas.

Our political system should not be static. The need for new states is perhaps even stronger today than it ever has been.

Jim Belshaw said...

Greg, I agree with every one of your points.

Mark said...

Jim, I recently gave this very topic some thought last week no doubt influenced by comments from Federal politicians. Apart from the NSW Government, who else would be a stumbling block? I know that some anti state Federal politicians would make noise over any suggestion of the creation of new states in the Commonwealth. This could be a greater challenge than Sydney I feel.

Since doing a bit of online research, I can see both sides of the coin. I see the point you made with Drummond too. This has proven consistant over time.

On another note, I live in Labor heartland, Kurri Kurri. I live amongst retired coal miners and steel workers. For the record, both men I spoke to are in their 70s and both admitted that they were led by Labor, to tow the party line in '67. Interestingly now, both admit that they made a grave mistake and passed by an opportunity that was many, many years in the making, especially for those further North. I will be doing more of this over the next few weeks and see if this is the same view throughout.

Greg said...

Jim, one thing that does concern me is the ever increasing tendency of centralism in government. There is a great deal more power concentrated in the national capital now than at any time since federation and I feel sure that this was not what our founding fathers had in mind.

Our federal system has become too heavily weighted towards Canberra largely thanks to the taxation system. The Commonwealth derives most of the public revenue (assumed when the threat of war was imminent) and therefore wields most of the power. They can exert undue influence over the decision making of the cash strapped states by virtue of the strength of the Commonwealth cheque book.

So to Mark's point - yes I think that extra states would probably not be welcomed by the Commonwealth. Imagine trying to broker a deal at COAG with 15 or more premiers and chief ministers instead of 8.

Come to think of it, if COAG were a business group instead of governments, it would be an illegal cartel under the fair trade laws.

I too have held discussions with older residents of the Hunter who regretted that they made the wrong decision in 1967. It's a common theme.

Jim Belshaw said...

It's interesting, both, how views change. I will do a post on the vote in the lower Hunter because I do understand how they felt. Their vote was in part one of tribale loyalty. That may have been badly repaid, but I can understand it.

I do not think that there would be any problem in getting admission to the Federation under the existing provisions in the constitution.

More states might make COAG style processes more complicated, but are probably more likely to symplify them. Part of the reason for this is smaller states would be likely to narrow and simplify the negotiating focus of the state.

Also consider the Government's original plan to fund 150 or so hospital networks directly. Now that's complicated.

The centralism issue is a real worry from my viewpoint because the Feds really haven't thought through just how the defacto central system now emerging might work in practice.

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