Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Wednesday Forum: reforming the Federation

The last Wednesday Forum, Wednesday Forum: New England's greatest needs, generated some very good ideas, including a remarkably good comment from Greg from Newcastle. I will pick up some of the other ideas in later posts. Here I just want to focus on Greg. He wrote:

I think that we all recognize that our federal system of government is not working well. Some even believe that it is in the emergency ward on life support. We all want change in the way that government in Australia is delivered but we have no clear idea of what it should look like. We are too blinkered by the paradigms of the 20th Century.

Although it is my region that I am primarily concerned with, my wish list is not just relevant to, Newcastle, New England or even NSW, but for the whole of Australia, regional Australia especially.

To a large extent our problems are rooted in the same cause. That cause is a dominant central government which is now, to all intents and purposes, more a unitary rather than a federal government. It has total fiscal hegemony over lower levels of government raising more than 80% of all taxes. Yet it is the states and local councils which are the primary providers of government services, but without the independent means to deliver. They are financially coupled to the chariot wheels of Canberra which has formed an expensive double bureaucracy.

How can Canberra make and implement good policy decisions for Newcastle, Armidale, Port Macquarie or any of the other cities and towns of New England? Of course it cannot because it's policies are, of necessity one size fits all. Australia is too vast and it's communities too diverse and widely spread. Only states, regions and communities can best make those policy decisions at a local or regional level.

So my wish list is not specific to New England, but it is essential for New England to prosper and achieve it's potential. REAL power must be devolved back to lower levels of government (both state and local). The Commonwealth must observe it's proper powers under sec 51 of the constitution instead of forever making incursions into areas which were never intended to be part of it's domain.

In practice this means that the Commonwealth must reduce it's fiscal dominance and thereby it's undue influence over states, regions and communities to allow local people to make policy decisions as appropriate for them and their communities. In other words, it must pass a great deal of it's taxing powers back to lower tiers of government and exit policy making for regional domestic matters.

We need a new constitutional convention where we can debate and decide what our federation should look like, the number of states, their boundaries and the responsibilities and taxing powers of each tier of government. At the moment our federation is moving ever closer to a unitary system and the results are obvious - choking capitals and failing regions. Our way of life is under threat.

The independents find themselves in a unique position in Australian political history. It is within their power to force a constitutional convention where we can renew and reshape our federation to breath new life into it for the challenges of the 21st Century.

This is what I would like to see from the New England independents. It would be the greatest of tragedies if they squandered this opportunity to help shape New England and indeed Australia for the better.

Will history remember them as visionaries with great purpose? Or simply as political grand standers who had 15 minutes of fame? The ball is in their court.

Wow! You don't have to agree with all Greg's points to recognise that he has mounted a powerful argument, so powerful that I have picked it up in my Armidale Express column to be published today.  You see, even if you disagree with him, Greg has captured something that many Australians' feel: our Federation is not working properly, nor are current approaches likely to fix this.

Do you support the idea, as I do, of a new constitutional convention focused on our Federation? What do you believe should be included to ensure that the Federation properly represents all parts of Australia?


Greg said...

Jim, today the Greens have negotiated with the ALP for constitutional recognition of local & regional government. This raises significant questions. A referendum will presumably be required for this. If there is constitutional recognition for local government, will this mean that States will no longer be able to interfere in local planning matters(eg. Cessnock CC)?

Also what is meant by "regional" government? Is this new states by another name? Presumably we aren't talking of a 4th tier of government in between local and state levels. If it is new states by another name, then why is it necessary when we already have constitutional provision for new states in Chapter 6 of the Constitution?

This development is encouraging but without expanding that to include discussion and recognition of taxing powers by each tier of government, it is unlikely to result in any substantial change. The Commonwealth will still have control of the cheque book.

Perhaps it is also time for a referendum to alter the constitutional requirement for the parliaments of the states to approve new states or altered boundaries.

Surely this should be entirely a matter for the electors of the proposed new state. Perhaps there should be a constitutional mechanism by which a plebiscite can be conducted and recognized as valid with or without the approval of the existing state parliament.

This comes down to a matter of self determination and should not be totally subject to a centralist state parliament with a vested interest in holding onto territory.

It seems even more compelling to me now that we have a constitutional convention.

Mark said...

With some focus on the issue of North Queensland and to a lesser degree, the Hunter-Newcastle region, hopefully will highlight why the status quo is failing regional Australia and that the time to discuss and implement change will soon follow. Regional Australia can only hope. The rural federal independant MPs and the upcoming NSW Sydney election can put some real emphasis into this long running proplem.

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi both.

Greg I have put the ALP/Greens agreement up on my personal blog -

You will see that there is agreement about a referendum, nothing about the details. I very much doubt that any of those involved have any idea as to the constitutional principles involved. Here your points are well taken.

I agree that we must get a constitutional convention, not only because its important in a general sense, but also because our interests are likely to be swept aside otherwise.

Mark, I can only hope that you are right. I picked up some of this in today's Express column. I have sent you a copy.