I’ve long promised a post on why regional government, an idea favored by both Whitlam and Howard, is a silly idea. If people want a unitary system of government, with the national government absorbing all the powers currently exercised by the states, they should say so, instead of flirting with this figleaf.
One of the hardy perennials of Australian politics is the claim that the states are obsolete and should be done away with. This view was pushed hard by Gough Whitlam, but it has adherents on all sides of politics, the most recent convert being John Howard.
On the face of it, abolition of the states would imply a highly centralised system in which the powers of the states were transferred to the Commonwealth. However, few proponents of state abolition accept this implication. Instead, it is argued, the current three-tier system of federal, state and local governments could be replaced by a two-tier system with 20 or so regional governments, with a resulting reduction in the number of politicians and bureaucrats.
This idea sounds appealing enough in the abstract, which is how it is normally presented. In practice, however, it is necessary to define regions with natural boundaries. It is obvious, at a minimum, that each of the existing state and territory capitals must have its own region. Moreover, Geelong clearly belongs with Melbourne, Wollongong and Newcastle with Sydney, and the Gold and Sunshine Coasts with Brisbane.
At this point, only three urban centres with a population of more than 90,Â 000 are left â€” Townsville, Cairns and Launceston. Geographically speaking, Townsville and Cairns could form the core of a natural northern region, including Mackay, Charters Towers, and Rockhampton. Unfortunately, the two cities hate each other with such a passion that even the name of the putative region (North Queensland vs Far North Queensland) would be a source of civil strife. Rather than be governed by the other, either city would prefer to be ruled from Brisbane or Canberra.
The problem with Launceston is the opposite. In practice, Tasmania is already divided into two parts, with separate newspapers, breweries and educational institutions, not to mention attitudes. Although Hobart is the seat of government, the northern coast, including Launceston, Burnie and Devonport, has half the population and most of the growth prospects. Far from strengthening regional diversity, the formal division of the state into two regions would simply strengthen the north at the expense of the south.
Suppose, however, that we allow North Queensland and Northern Tasmania as regions. The ten regions described so far (eight of which are based on existing state and terrority capitals) include urban centres accounting for more than 75 per cent of the population of Australia. When their immediate hinterland is taken into account, the figure is probably between 85 and 90 per cent.
It is simply nonsense to suggest that the remaining 2 or 3 million people could be divided up into ten sustainable regions, as the 20-region idea would suggest. The whole of Western Australia outside Perth has only half a million people, and South Australia outside Adelaide only three hundred thousand. Road, rail and air transport networks all radiate from Adelaide and Perth. Any regional government formed in these states would have little option but to base its operations in the existing state capital.
Superficially, the prospects for regionalism look better in the eastern states, each of which have around a million people living outside the metropolitan conurbations. But the apparent good prospects are superficial indeed. The biggest provincial centres in Victoria are Ballarat-Bendigo, the Latrobe Valley and Albury-Wodonga. They have little in common except that they are not Melbourne. The same is true of Bathurst-Orange, Coffs Harbour and Wagga in New South Wales.
Rural and regional Australians feel neglected by governments based in faraway coastal cities, and often with good reason. But under the current system, country voters frequently exercise the balance of power, and can punish governments that are too focused on the interests of the metropolis. Jeff Kennett found this out to his cost.
In a system of regional governments, this influence would be lost. The regions would still depend on the former capitals for transport hubs, teaching hospitals, major universities and a host of other services, but would no longer have any political leverage over them. In dealings between say, a government of Greater Sydney and a government of Greater Wagga, it is not hard to imagine who would lose out.
The only way the system could be made to work is if the federal government stepped in to level the playing field. In practice, the Commonwealth would assume all the powers of the former states and the regional governments would be glorified shire councils.
No doubt a case can be made for a unitary national government as opposed to our federal system, though unitary states like Britain and New Zealand are mostly going the other way. But given Australiaâ€™s geography and history, the states are natural minimal units. The idea of breaking them up into regions is simply a chimera.