Allan Patience. Can We Continue to Afford Australia’s Federal System?

Jan 18, 2016

Australians are facing a gruelling 2016. A growing revenue crisis is placing severe constraints on the budget, meaning the government will probably be contemplating cuts in services and other “soft target” areas like pensions, child care subsidies and related welfare measures. The neo-liberal vandalizing of the country’s manufacturing sector, and the short-termism that is now a fixed feature of economic policy-making in Australia, mean that employment prospects are bleak, especially for school leavers and recent graduates. The consequences of climate change are becoming more apparent by the day as the country struggles through a summer of heat waves, droughts, floods, and bushfires. The cost of the country’s military involvements in the Middle East is mounting at a high rate. Maintaining the Manus Island and Nauru asylum seeker gulags is costing Australian taxpayers billions. China is no longer the cash cow it was during the squandered resources boom. Globally, the major capitalist economies continue to stagnate while burdened by debt levels greater than those preceding the 2008 global financial crisis. Meanwhile, since 2012 the Lowy Poll has been charting a growing dissatisfaction among voters with the country’s politicians and political institutions. This trend is particularly noticeable among 18-29 year-olds. The most recent Lowy Poll found that 37 percent of that age group believes that a non-democratic government could be preferable to the one we have at present.

All of these factors point to the need for a radical reappraisal of the country’s system of governance. A close, hard look at the Australian federal system should be at the top of that agenda. The forthcoming white paper on federalism is meant to come up with ideas for the “Reform of the Federation, and the responsibilities of different governments, [and to] clarify roles and responsibilities to ensure that, as far as possible, the States and Territories are sovereign in their own sphere.” This is a narrowly ideological approach to the extremely serious problems now besetting our ramshackle federation.

It is now more obvious than ever before that the nineteenth century compromises that resulted in the present federal arrangements are profoundly unsuited to the political challenges of the twenty-first century. What we have are separate representative governments in six states, two territories, and at the federal level. This is in addition to various forms of local government within the states. Critics of this absurd version of over-government have pointed to the expensive duplications, bureaucratic mazes, regulatory jungles, blame gaming, and inefficiencies these arrangements routinely foist on the people of Australia.

We can add to this inglorious list the rank incompetence of state governments, vividly on display when the Napthine government in Victoria signed a doomed contract to build an East-West link road system which has cost Victorian voters over a billion dollars, despite the project being abandoned. In addition state governments have the ugly reputation of being the most corrupt forms of government in Australia. If memories of the shenanigans of the Burke government in Western Australia or the Bjelke-Petersen government in Queensland are fading, consider the lurid revelations in 2015 about the antics of certain senior Education Department bureaucrats in Victoria.

The main defence of state governments has always been couched in terms of the democratic principle of subsidiarity. Put simply, this principal asserts that the best forms of government are those closest to the people. What the application of this principle fails to acknowledge is that no matter how “close” government is to the people, if the people are shut out of the policy decision making that affects their lives, if they are inadequately consulted (or even hoodwinked) during policy making (for example, on grounds of “commercial in confidence”), if they are denied avenues for genuine participation in the making of those decisions, then it is simply a political fiction – a big fat governance lie.

What we have to wake up to is the fact that representative government is not democratic government. At the beginning of the twentieth century the German political sociologist Robert Michels identified what he called the “iron law of oligarchy.” This notes that all emerging social democratic political parties and states contained within them the seeds of oligarchy – structures that would allow powerful minority groups to seize control of their organisations and ensure that their preferred candidates would keep that control intact for generations. The forms of representative government that developed throughout the twentieth century illustrate the veracity of Michels’ “iron law.” They are all governed by oligarchical, self-perpetuating elites. Their mainstream political parties also reflect exactly the same characteristics. Paramount among them is the determination to lock popular participation out of government decision-making. The oligarchs in the mainstream parties, in and out of government, and their bureaucrat, media, and business allies are impervious to the needs and opinions of ordinary citizens. In Australia this is especially evident at the levels of state governments.

Australia can no longer afford its tumbledown nineteenth century federal system of governance. Its myriad politicians, public servants and political parties are ridiculously expensive; they uniformly fail to deliver the essential public services needed by the mass of people excluded from the oligarchical minority for whom the system works to the disadvantage of all the rest.

So what is to be done?

We need to revive some of the regional thinking of the Whitlam years. Abolishing state governments has to be high on the constitutional reform agenda. Also high on the agenda should be their replacement with geographically and economically rational regional provincial assemblies. That these would be directly answerable to a more accountable central government should be also high on the agenda and vice versa – for example, by making the senior elected chairpersons from the regional assemblies members of a reformed Senate.

This must go hand in hand with a creative civics education program in schools and the wider community, to give people access to information and to develop structures that will enable them to participate effectively in making the policy decisions that affect their lives. The oligarchs will dismiss this as “populism” because the thing they fear most is losing their iron grip on the power levers in the Alice-in-Wonderland maze that is the Australian federal system.

The time is here to talk about getting rid of state governments and reviving the ideals of democracy in Australia’s stalled constitutional dreaming.


Allan Patience is a political scientist in the Asia Institute, University of Melbourne


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