The case for federalism
Having established that the idea of â€˜regional governmentâ€™ makes no sense in the Australian context, letâ€™s look at the real issue of centralism versus federalism. Would we be better off without a unitary system in which a single national government controlled everything ? I donâ€™t think so. I’ll present my case over the fold. You might also like to look at Ken Parish, Gary Sauer-Thompson and Andrew Norton. The Currency Lad disagrees, endorsing Keating’s view of the Senate, and Whitlam’s view of the states.
There are various ways to justify a preference for federalism. For example, thereâ€™s a whole body of Catholic social teaching around the concept of subsidiarity. I am reasonably positive towards the concept, but Iâ€™ve never explored the associated doctrinal baggage.
My starting point is that of liberal democracy. The essential point of liberalism is that, in matters that donâ€™t affect anyone else, I should be free to choose for myself. To make this operational we need to push it a bit further and extend the domain of personal choice to things that might have a marginal impact on others (perhaps requiring some sort of payment or compensation) but primarily affect the person concerned.
Now suppose choices affect me and someone else. Then the principles of liberal democracy imply that we should both have a role in making choices, and that neither of us should be allowed to coerce the other. But beyond preventing coercion, the situation doesnâ€™t give any third party a right to participate the choice, any more than they would have the right to dictate my personal choices.
Applied more generally, the same arguments suggest that, whenever the main effects of decisions are local to some group, they should be made by that group. Only when there are substantial shared interests should a larger group be involved.
In the Australian setting, lots of issues are primarily of concern at the state level (which is also, for practical purposes, the city+hinterland level). What happens to schools or historic buildings in Melbourne is of very little direct concern to a Brisvegan like myself, and vice versa.
The same is true of course, as regards Canberra and other cities, and ordinary Canberrans feel much the same as others regarding outside dictation (from which they suffer more than most). But the view from â€˜Canberraâ€™ in the political sense of the word is very different. Ministers and national bureaucrats see diversity as untidy and undesirable. They are forever promoting the idea that everyone in Australia should have identical institutions at every level.
The ultimate expressions of this viewpoint was Napoleonâ€™s boast that he could tell what every schoolchild in France was studying at any given moment. It takes a degree of modesty uncommon in the political class to realise that itâ€™s better to let people make their own decisions than to impose a uniform decision upon them.
Most Australains are instinctive federalists. Even relatively recent arrivals in a state rapidly adopt the local rather than the national perspective on may issues. The big problem is on the revenue side. There are generally big advantages to taxes being levied at a national level, and the central government is therefore always in a strong bargaining position. But this is all the more reason to insist on the importance of federalism and to vote against overweening national governments.
This leaves open the question of who should do what. Arguably the worst problem in Australia today is not excessive centralism, but the federal government’s practice of sticking its nose into all sorts of issues while leaving the heavy lifting to the states. The states have the job of running the school system, for example, while the feds snipe about whatever their preferred cause of the day might be (gender equity when Labor was in, the three R’s when old-style conservatives have the running, who knows what tomorrow).
As I’ve argued previously, health has to be national simply because Medicare and the PBS can’t be run any other way. So the Commonwealth should take over hospitals as well. In compensation, the Commonwealth should get entirely out of schools, roads and housing. Generally speaking when issues can be dealt with adequately at a state level, they should be.
fn1. Presumably like state governments today, a unitary national government would delegate some tasks to local authorities, but these would have no independent existence.
fn2. This is an issue on which I have changed my mind. In the 1970s, I was a Whitlamite centralist, but I shifted position over the 1980s and early 1990s, in favor of a system of checks and balances. For the same reason, I now favor bicameralism and, at least for upper houses, proportional representation. I plan another post on my political evolution some time soon.