29/05/2007 - 22:00

Folly of the anti-federalists

29/05/2007 - 22:00


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Ongoing Howard government moves against Australia’s traditional federalist arrangements, through the constant expansion of Canberra’s powers, have been regularly highlighted by State Scene.

Ongoing Howard government moves against Australia’s traditional federalist arrangements, through the constant expansion of Canberra’s powers, have been regularly highlighted by State Scene.

Such centralist and duplicating moves have meant this government is straying far and wide from the Liberal Party’s traditional backing for federalism – a key plank when Robert Menzies created it in 1944.

In this respect, John Howard is more like his big spending Labor predecessor, former Sydney lawyer Gough Whitlam, than Sir Robert Menzies.

Also grossly culpable is Western Australia’s Canberra team of six Liberal senators and 10 MHRs, who never criticise or oppose this anti-federalist proclivity, thereby making themselves indistinguishable from their Labor counterparts.

The three ministers in that 16-strong contingent – ex-senator Ian Campbell, Senator Chris Ellison, and Julie Bishop – have often been named for showing greater loyalty to their leader than to their party’s foundation federalist plank.

In light of this, it was pleasing to hear a recent ABC radio commentary by Sydney University law academic, Associate Professor Anne Twomey, defending Australia’s threatened federalist arrangement.

Her commentary began: “If you ask Australians what they think of federalism, the answer is often not very complimentary.

“It’s a waste, they say – too many governments, too much duplication, too expensive. It’s an old-fashioned system from the 19th century that just can’t compete in this era of globalisation.

“If we were starting again, they argue, we wouldn’t choose federalism.”

State Scene fully agrees with her, since even Prime Minister Howard has actually said as much.

In a 2005 radio interview, he claimed that if Australia were being recreated today it would probably opt for what he dubbed a regional form of governance.

That unfortunate comment backs the Whitlam 1973-75 program of regionalising Australia – breaking up of the states into regions – with all those regions falling solely under exclusive Canberra bureaucratic control.

This Whitlam idea originated from the ALP’s 1921 Maurice Blackburn centralisation plan, which resembled the mid-1930s Hitlerite Gaue (regions) blueprint that resulted in the breaking up of Germany’s historic states, called Landes.

Blackburn sought to have Australia’s states similarly displaced with a large number of provinces, each entirely centrally controlled.

To hear a Liberal PM using such language is astonishing since it shows that no matter whom Western Australians vote for, they’re likely to end up with a central government that’s anti-federalist.

Professor Twomey next asked if there was any real basis for the commonly heard arguments against federalism.

“Not if you take a broader outlook and compare federal and unitary countries internationally,” she said.

“For example, unless Australia decided to become a communist dictatorship, it is pretty likely that we would choose a federal system of government today just as we did over 100 years ago.”

Although State Scene certainly doesn’t disagree with this, it’s worth reiterating that Mr Howard appears to be a closet regionalist, and is a centralist, suggesting the embracing of federalism isn’t inevitable.

“Geographically large countries all tend to be federations. Apart from China, every country that is larger in size than Australia is a federation,” Professor Twomey continued.

Why is this?

According to Professor Twomey, Australia was initially broken up into separate colonies for the same reason.

She said it is simply unreasonable to attempt to govern people scattered over a vast area with their different interests and circumstances from one central government.

“The advantage of a federal system is that it can accommodate local needs and national interests,” Professor Twomey said.

Moreover, she says, federalism was becoming increasingly popular internationally.

And the reason for this is because its flexible structure is best suited for dealing with globalisation.

“Over the past 50 years, the economic performance of federal countries has been significantly better than unitary countries,” she said.

“Indeed, the greater the decentralisation in a country, the better its economic performance.

“The internal competition in federal structures ensures that governments are more efficient and competitive than those in unitary states.

“Don’t believe me?

“If you look at the G-8 – the countries with the eight biggest economies in the world today – half are federations and the others have tried to harness some of the benefits of federalism by giving greater powers to their regions.

“We often think that we are over-governed because we have three tiers of government.

“All of the G-8 nations have at least three tiers of government, and in some cases four.”

Professor Twomey said people often assumed that, in federal systems the level of government would be bigger and costlier than in unitary, or one-government, states.

On this they are wrong.

“If you compare OECD countries, the unitary ones tend to have larger and costlier public sectors than the federal ones,” she said.

“Why? Because like all monopolies, unitary governments tend to become bloated and inefficient.

“In federal systems, the competition between governments forces them to be more efficient and innovative.

“Over the past 50 years, the economic performance of federal countries has been significantly better than unitary countries.

“Indeed, the greater the decentralisation in a country, the better its economic performance.”

According to Professor Twomey, apart from the economic advantages, federalism also has social benefits, which act as a check on power and protect individuals from an overly powerful central government.

“Without the federal constraints in the constitution, if the commonwealth government controlled both houses of parliament, it could enact almost any legislation, no matter how extreme, with scarcely any scrutiny,” she said.

“Federalism not only limits excessive power, but requires co-operation and moderation.

“Governments are forced to put their case publicly for controversial changes and to negotiate to achieve a reasonable outcome.

“Greater scrutiny and more measured proposals are the consequence.”

Professor Twomey said people were offered greater choice under a federal system, whereby they can vote for one party at federal elections because of its stand on certain issues, and another in state elections because of its policies on other issues.

“In a unitary system, all issues are bundled up in the one election, leaving the people no power to make such distinctions,” she said.

However, Professor Twomey concedes that some of complaints people have about federalism are not without good cause.

“Federalism can give us huge economic and social benefits, we just need to make it work better,” she said.

“A good start would be to review the allocation of powers between the commonwealth and the states to ensure separate responsibilities where possible and make each level of government more accountable.

“This would eliminate much of the duplication and buck-passing.

“Where it is not possible to separate out functions, we need to improve the mechanisms for co-operation.

“Most importantly, we need to change the way we finance our federal system, so that each level of government takes full responsibility for its functions and neither interferes with nor duplicates the roles of the other.

“Continuing creeping centralism is not a sensible option.

“It will only make our existing problems worse, not better.

“We are lucky to have one of the most flexible and potentially efficient systems of government in the world.

“Instead of complaining about it, we should make it work better for all of us.”

When considering federalism it’s worth noting that there’s only one federation that has successfully countered the temptation to slide towards centralism – the direction Mr Whitlam wanted, and now Mr Howard wants, power to flow.

That exception is, of course, Switzerland whose states – called cantons – jealously guard their powers with the people’s electoral backing.

The reason is that Switzerland has something Australia’s founding fathers deliberately denied Australian voters – Swiss voters can themselves call referendums on constitutional issues by signing a petition.

Although Australia’s 1890s founding fathers borrowed the referendum idea from Switzerland, they were careful to ensure only politicians – the ruling strata – could ever call them.

Since the Swiss people have the power to call constitutional referendums, they can combat centralist moves by politicians like Messrs Howard and Whitlam.

With Australian voters constitutionally denied this power – this right – since day one of 1901, the politicians are able to continue centralising by stealth, generally for vote-buying reasons, without risking a referendum encounter with voters since backers of federalism cannot initiate a counter referendum.


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