Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

A state without the means of change is without the means of its conservation

I missed it over the weekend (sorry was forced offline, the joys of unpredictable internet service in the heart of the nations capital), but this opinion piece by Banaby Joyce on the role of the states is seriously good reading:

I had a naive belief when I entered the Senate that it was a house protecting states’ rights and to this cause I would fervently attend the barricade and fight on behalf of Queensland. I have come to the conclusion that this is a unique and nostalgic view in the Senate…
From my discussions the public seem to be over the states and can’t see the relevance of them any more. Their region is more relevant than their state and this is what the upper house should now represent. Six regions in what was a state, with two senators per region elected at each election, would give geographic relevance back to the Senate, its actual purpose, while maintaining a bicameral system with the current numbers in a better representative spread.

What are the states? They are lines on the map that were drawn at an arbitrary point in time when a boat turned up on the coast and its occupants created a settlement that grew to a colony that became a state. And in 2009 that is about as relevant as they are. With the borrowings of the Federal Government on a morbid journey towards $300 billion and the borrowings of the states in excess of $150 billion we have to cut recurring expenditure and three tiers of government would be a good place to start, especially when two of them do basically the same job. Given their cost of about $30 billion a year, as pointed out by Dr Mark Drummond in his thesis, Costing Constitutional Change: Estimates of the Financial Benefits of New States, Regional Governments, Unification and Related Reforms, the removal of state governments should be considered.

To see Joyce of all people advocating the end of the states, and using academic research to promote it is quite a shock. That said Joyce does have two glaring issues: First when discussing redrawing the Senate: The ACT and Northern Territory are AGAIN completely ignored. This is most noticeable in Joyce’s proposed solution which is to get rid of the states, but seemingly draws all the new regions within existing state boundaries, so as to keep overall representation levels the same. The Senate is an odd beast in it’s proportional representation method, yet enforced levels of senators regardless of population. If we are to move to a regional order, then whilst some geographic borders should be taken into account (such separating capital cities from their surrounding rural areas, or clear geographic districts), then there must also be some shift towards making the senate represent the population spread of the country. Not as divided as the HOR, but it’s unacceptable to have a house of review which gives Tasmania one senator for every 41’000 people, and the ACT one senator for every 170’000 people.

Secondly, when advocating the fiscal advantage of dismantling the states: The only way Joyce’s changes could represent a real savings was if almost all taxes and income was pushed over to the Federal Government. That way, people keep paying similar levels, but the government can use it to fund one tier of service, rather than two. This would be a difficult process, to be worked out carefully with each state government, all effectively working hard to put themselves out of a job. The resistance to this amongst the political elite and bureaucracy would be immense and require real national leadership.

Personally I’m strongly in favor of the move. As Joyce notes, the public simply don’t care about the state identities anymore, and so long as they have someone local they can complain to about roads, rates and rubbish, they seem quite content with the Federal Governments increasing centralisation. Indeed MP’s staffers seem to spend increasing amounts of their time helping directing locals to which state office is appropriate. Most of the public just figure their national MP is the one to talk to on most issues. Not only would changing to a regional system end the gerrymander of our Senate and Referendums, it would let us address a number of key constitutional issues in the open (such as debate control of Industrial Relations, rather than through a Supreme court ruling), and standardise a number of common problems across the states (such as the paperwork required to open a business or sending your child to a new school). The states simply have no relation left to either where the people live or where the national issues lie. Changing to a 12-15 regional state grouping would solve much of that. It’s a big change, but after 108 years Australia can afford to tinker with the system. Especially when for the last 40 the change has been going on privately, now it’s time to make it public and transparent. (We could even revisit the issue of New Zealand as a Australian state. They were more involved than WA was for much of the Federation process)

Still, it is interesting to see Australia’s Conservatives, having spent the entire 20th century claiming to be the party of ‘states rights’ now turn against the institutions. Whilst i’m not to sure how deep such feelings go (Joyce is of course an outsider) it is the logical extension of Howards centralizing tendencies and continued domination of the way the conservative movement thinks. It’s no surprise therefore that his greatest idoliser Tony Abbott is now preparing a book pushing a similar line to Joyce on the end of states:

The book will be conservative in its thrust and there will be policy ideas, including advocating a more aggressive approach to fix our dysfunctional system of federation than John Howard or Rudd was willing to embrace. Essentially, the Commonwealth should call the shots and individual states should no longer be able to veto policy.

Abbott pushed for similar changes whilst in government, and though he will likely just want to centralise not dismantle it is an interesting argument by one of the most conservative politicians in Australia. (Though Abbott also shifts with the wind somewhat, in the early 90’s he was aghast at the opening up of the economy under Keating, yet under Howard one of the great promoters of economic liberalisation. But more on that when his book comes out.) This willingness to push for new approaches however is one of the reasons I like Abbott. He is much more driven by ideas than most of his colleagues on both sides of the chamber. And whilst never a great touch politically, and someone I almost inevitably disagree with, I like his openness and forthright efforts towards what he sees as in the national interest.

Labor if it is wise will jump at this shift in conservative opinion whole heartedly. As a movement it has seen the states as great resistors to social and industrial change from even before Federation. If someone like Gough or Keating was leading the party, this would be all we would be hearing about for the next 2 years. Both took the long term view and understood the movements history. Rudd however is a different beast. He has neither the care for history, the temperament, or the desire to take up such a risky task. He is a manager who lives in the moment, and despite talking up the idea of a new federalism whilst in opposition quickly came to embrace the status-quo (that is of a slow, largely publicly unseen accumulation of power within the federal government (if not the PM’s office) at the expense of the states). Maybe Gillard can make this her claim to the top job : To bring Education and Health under Federal government control, and via referendums dismantle the states. It would be a tough job that an economic crisis or nearby war could easily throw off course, but it is a key development for Australia’s long term prosperity and success. It would also give us a chance to renew our contact with the Constitution. Australia today operates in a very successful way, but one that is miles away from that prescribed in the constitution. That is a perhaps unsettling, though little remarked fact, and one a wise leader would seek not only to amend, but to do so in ways that ensure their enduring values come to take a part of that document.

(* Title quote by Edmund Burke “A state without the means of change is without the means of its conservation” – Reflections on the Revolution in France 1790)

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