Good government and Federalism

By July 31, 2019Other

Good government and federalism

This essay rises from musing about British PM Boris Johnson, Brexit and the European Union, and of course musing about our own situation in Australia. Since human beings came to settle in villages, grow crops and domesticate animals there have been two competing forces affecting ‘power’. The first, and certainly the earliest, was that power resided in the headman, the warrior-chief, and then the king. The second, and the weaker, was that the people of the village were able to make their own decisions, perhaps with the guidance of the headman or the elders, but they could do it by themselves.

Over the past ten thousand years these forces have wrestled with each other. Nation-states were formed, more or less successfully, through the more powerful of the barons coercing neighbouring barons to accept his over-lordship, through force, inter-marriage, treaties, fear of even more powerful enemies outside, and so on. This is the story of Britain, France, and in the 19thcentury, Germany. As Europe became more powerful relative to much of the rest of the world there developed colonies, ‘settler societies’, which formed their own rules in new parts of the planet. Several of them, notably the USA, Canada and Australia decided to ‘federate’, apportioning some powers to the centre and others to the colonies that had agreed to join together.

There had been federations before. Switzerland was one, formed in part to maintain separate languages in separate regions of its mountainous terrain. The division of powers was relatively simple: the centre dealt with defence and foreign affairs that affected everyone, a common currency, common basic laws, and dealing with disputes between parts of the new nation and between parts and the centre. The rest, more or less, was a matter for the constituent parts of the nation: schooling, roads, agriculture and industry, waterways and the like.

As time passed there grew a new sense of nationalism, and of course that was fostered by the centre. In the 20thcentury technological advances greatly increased the power of the centre in every nation, partly because these advances, like the telephone, railways, air travel, television, and more recently the Internet, computing and the smart phone, brought all residents of the nation closer together, and lessened the real power of the governments of the states or provinces. At the end of the 20thcentury a supra-national body, the United Nations and its many agencies, was doing its best to be the centre, directing recommendations to all the member states, some of whom took them seriously, while others did their best to ignore them, or at least those recommendations that didn’t suit them.

During wars there is a tendency to go national. In Australia during the war a proposal was floated for the abolition of the States and their replacement by forty or so regional councils. It didn’t get very far: if there were ever a referendum that would be decisively defeated everywhere, it would have been that one. Australia has quite strong localism, despite all the communications advances. Even seventy years after Federation a third of Western Australians and a quarter of Tasmanians thought of themselves in terms of their State rather than of their nation. A third of all respondents placed their State second if it was not their first choice (Stability and Change in Australian Politics, second edition, page 183). Any change to local government boundaries will produce expressions of fury and lament from locals and local bodies: they don’t want to be tied up in a bigger council with people a long way away. The last sentence is still true; I’m not sure about the importance of State location as an identifier in 2019.

The growing wealth of the 20thcentury, and the way in which the centre appropriated taxation revenue in most if not all federations has tipped the balance decisively in favour of the centre. In our own country, no matter where the MPs and Senators come from, very few of them keep any kind of states’ rights perspective once they are in the Federal Parliament. John Howard, becoming PM, said firmly to his Departmental Secretary, ‘Never forget, I am not a states’ rights person!’ It is hard to distinguish Labor from the Coalition in terms of their attitude to Australia and the States: Australia is the game, and the States are an inconvenience. The States do their best to maintain a kind of independence, but when large sums of money are involved, there is only the Commonwealth to go to, and it usually strikes a hard bargain, unless there is an election coming quickly. The Council Of Australian Governments (COAG) sounds sort of Federal, but in practice can seem a device for allowing the Commonwealth to persuade, cajole and bluster the States to see things its own way.

And what is government for, anyway? To maintain order, and allow people to get on with their lives in the most peaceful and productive way — that would be my short summary. Of course, implementing such a broad brief would take us into all sort of policies. For example, our Constitution makes clear that Tasmanians are to be treated like everyone else, with respect to Commonwealth policies. That was a necessary condition if Tasmania was to be in the new Federation rather than outside it. All those outside the island State subsidise those who live there. There is no such provision in the Canadian Constitution, and the quality of services can vary markedly between the provinces.

Back to the EU, which might have been more successful as a Federation, allowing member nations to do all sorts of things consistent with their history and culture. Brexit might not have occurred, or need to have occurred. After all, the United Kingdom had allowed Scotland and Wales to develop quasi parliaments, after some centuries where such local authority had been expressly forbidden. Too much control from the centre finally doesn’t work, because the nuances at the local level often have no meaning at the centre, and the lack of understanding will lead to bad decisions, and thus to frustration.

So I am firmly in the Federal camp, and unlikely to shift from it. It is not perfect, but it is to me plainly better than the unitary state. A good government to me is a minimalist, incremental government. It does not have grand visions or plans unless they quite powerfully come from below and are designed in a inclusive fashion. In fact, the problem is that parliaments are there to make laws. What they might do best is to reduce the laws we already have, which exist in their thousands. But that is much more boring than designing new laws, alas.

Join the discussion 11 Comments

  • Ken Nielsen says:

    Wise thoughts Don. As always careful analysis of the issues, allowing those who might disagree to come to their own conclusions.

  • Richard Barratt says:

    I agree Don, Federalism is a good model.

    In fact, I’ve often thought that if the UN were redesigned along Federal lines it might get a bit more traction. A lower house with the number of representatives proportional to population, and an upper with X votes per country, where X could be one, ten, or whatever. Ten seems like a good number, allowing for minority groups a chance of getting their representative up.

    Such a UN could be responsible for things like terms of trade, borders, an independent arbitrator in times of civil and international (war) unrest, flow of refugees, application of aid, and, dare I say it, pricing carbon.

    About 20 years ago I read that if the top 500 extraction points were priced, about 90% of fossil fuel generated emissions would be accounted for. That has probably reduced, with the advent of fracking, but I dare say a body charged with examining such things could delve a little deeper than the top 500, and also examine clearing and land use change. The entities responsible could be charged the price – yes, a tax – and the revenue returned to the countries’ governments. Thus a price signal reflecting the cost to the environment driving investment in alternatives, but the country in question not missing out on the revenue. This would address the Tragedy of the Commons and the Prisoners’ Dilemma issues central to addressing the nexus of emissions and self-interest.

  • Stu says:

    The current system works pretty well. Except for the issue of Senate representation. The equal numbers per state system was required to get the small states on board for federation. The problem is the nexus issue in the constitution which they tried to change in the 1967 referendum. Sadly it lost based on misinformation from some elements of the political system. The net result is we still have a Senate half the size of the House of Representatives. And the result of that is that we have Tasmania with 6 MP’s and 12 Senators. And therefore the quota for election is tiny in that state especially in a double dissolution.

    That would all be fine if the Senate was still a house of review but it has become a bandit seeking excess benefits at the cost of the voters in every other state. Recent events support that claim, but the master was Brian Harradine. And of course he also brought religiously based distortions.

    The solution now is to retry the nexus question, but that will not happen. So the only solution I see is to fragment the large states, which has been floated before. If we double the number of states by dividing for example NSW, into “regional” states such as Sydney Metropolitan, Hunter, New England and Riverina we would be on the way. Same in Vic and Quuensland.

    This would reduce the number of Senators per state therefore requiring a higher level of voter support for election.

    Of course this could also take place in an environment where state powers were reduced to roads, rates and rubbish (a bit like a reduced ACT). Leaving things like policing, education, health to the national body.

    Just a thought.

  • Boambee John says:

    Sit down Stu, I agree with you about the need to divide the smaller states, while retaining the equal number of senators for each (trying to change that will lead to failure at a referendum). IIRC, and Don could correct me if necessary, the Constitution sets the minimum number of senators per state at six. Thus, with the present number of senators, 12 or 13 states could be set up with no, or only a minor, increase to the number of senators.

    The existing states might oppose this, as Wran did with the New England proposal some decades ago (he nominated Newcastle as the possible state capital, thus including a large number of “anti” voters in the referendum). Still, it would be better than now.

    The doctrine of subsidiarity, devolving decisions to the lowest practical level, would significantly improve Australian governance, but only if states/regions are allowed to be different, allowing different approaches to issues such as climate change, resource extraction, housing, transport or policing. Indeed, anything beyond the federal responsibility for defence and international relations.

    But the federal government would have to resist the urge to sign treaties that allow it to impose its will on lower levels of government.

    That would be a big ask!

  • Joseph Roach says:

    Don, I’m intrigued by your comment on Tasmania. I know the constitution provides that the Commonwealth cannot treat citizens of any State differently to those of another State, but you make it sound as if there is a special provision for Tasmania. Is there? (Apart from representation – which is part of the Federal compact.) And I should make a disclosure: I am by birth, inclination and destination – though not current residency – a Tasmanian!

  • spangled drongo says:

    If we keep importing the world to our shores we will need at least 50 states to spread them around. Because as we can’t ask them to go bush we will need a lot more capital cities for them all to live in.

    I always love Churchill’s “democ­ra­cy is the worst form of gov­ern­ment, except for all the oth­ers” and while he may not have been the originator of that, he did have a few good comments on govt:

    “If I had to sum up the imme­di­ate future of demo­c­ra­t­ic pol­i­tics in a sin­gle word I should say “insur­ance.” That is the future—insurance against dan­gers from abroad, insur­ance against dan­gers scarce­ly less grave and much more near and con­stant which threat­en us here at home in our own island. —Free Trade Hall, Man­ches­ter, 23 May 1909

    “At the bot­tom of all the trib­utes paid to democ­ra­cy is the lit­tle man, walk­ing into the lit­tle booth, with a lit­tle pen­cil, mak­ing a lit­tle cross on a lit­tle bit of paper—no amount of rhetoric or volu­mi­nous dis­cus­sion can pos­si­bly dimin­ish the over­whelm­ing impor­tance of that point. —House of Com­mons, 31 Octo­ber 1944

    “How is that word “democ­ra­cy” to be inter­pret­ed? My idea of it is that the plain, hum­ble, com­mon man, just the ordi­nary man who keeps a wife and fam­i­ly, who goes off to fight for his coun­try when it is in trou­ble, goes to the poll at the appro­pri­ate time, and puts his cross on the bal­lot paper show­ing the can­di­date he wish­es to be elect­ed to Parliament—that he is the foun­da­tion of democ­ra­cy. And it is also essen­tial to this foun­da­tion that this man or woman should do this with­out fear, and with­out any form of intim­i­da­tion or vic­tim­iza­tion. He marks his bal­lot paper in strict secre­cy, and then elect­ed rep­re­sen­ta­tives and togeth­er decide what gov­ern­ment, or even in times of stress, what form of gov­ern­ment they wish to have in their coun­try. If that is democ­ra­cy, I salute it. I espouse it. I would work for it.” —House of Com­mons, 8 Decem­ber 1944”

    But I bet he is glad that he doesn’t have to deal with the insurance madness of govt “climate crisis”.

  • Peter E says:

    Yes, federalism is the way to go. You rightly point out that
    a federal approach by the EU would have gone much better.

  • Boambee John says:


    I alluded above to one of our major problems. That is the willingness of governments of all political colours, abetted by the High Court, to use international treaties and conventions to circumvent the original intention of the Constitution. Until this can be stopped, there is little point discussing greater federalism.

    Another barrier to progress is the states. For all of their fulminating about “Canberra”, the states prefer the present system, under which the Commonwealth raises the bulk of revenue, a large part of which is then passed to the states, which use it to gain political credit via pork barrelling. They do not want the opprobrium of raising the revenue to carry out their true functions, preferring to just take the credit for the spending.

    The decision to pass income taxing power to the Commonwealth during the Second World War has become a barrier to greater federalism. A Commonwealth government with real nerve would be needed to return that power to the states, and refuse to bail out any state that bankrupted itself.

    The Commonwealth could then retain the GST and excise as its principal sources of revenue.

    I think I just saw a flying pig!

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