Home > Oz Politics > The case for federalism

The case for federalism

March 30th, 2005

Having established that the idea of ‘regional government’ makes no sense in the Australian context, let’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 [1]? I don’t think so[2]. 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, there’s a whole body of Catholic social teaching around the concept of subsidiarity. I am reasonably positive towards the concept, but I’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 don’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 doesn’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 ‘Canberra’ 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 Napoleon’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 it’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.

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  1. Factory
    March 30th, 2005 at 20:54 | #1

    A shorter Quiggin:
    “Ah federalism, an useful concept. BTW did I mention this pet theory of mine?”

  2. Vee
    March 30th, 2005 at 22:06 | #2

    I’m yet to read the full thing but may I say the only thing established is that regional governments make no sense in a centralised context.

    I shall get back to you on centralism vs. federalism.

  3. Andrew Reynolds
    March 31st, 2005 at 00:18 | #3

    Well done, PrQ, a post that I mostly agree with. You are particularly right about the revenue position. The danger here is that all PMs tend to believe they can do anything better than anyone else (the “Chosen One” syndrome) and that includes administer all the functions of government, including the state and local governments. PMs from both sides are frequently guilty of this. The revenue side gives them a big stick to wield to further this belief. If we are to get federalism back on track then this imbalance needs to be corrected.
    Just one small difference springs to mind – I would agree that Medicare could not be run any other way, but that does not mean that health needs to be run federally. Just either get rid of, or substantially alter, Medicare.

  4. March 31st, 2005 at 00:55 | #4

    I must have missed it – can someone point me to where it was “established that the idea of ‘regional government’ makes no sense in the Australian context”?

    I don’t necessarily subscribe wholeheartedly to the idea, but I wouldn’t mind seeing this categorical de-bunking.

    Mind you, I do accept that the chances of regional government happening are zero, so in that regard it makes more sense to debate something more realistic.

  5. Paul Norton
    March 31st, 2005 at 09:36 | #5

    “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.”

    You’re not alone in this evolution. For a long time the default position of the dominant trends in the left seemed to be that any institution which could constrain the ability of a prospective left-wing or “real Labor” national government to carry out a program of socialist transformation (or, at least, radical social democratic reform) was a bad thing and had to be abolished or nobbled. The list of institutions to be “fixed” in either of these ways included State governments, Upper Houses, minor parties and electoral systems which let them in, Constitutional guarantees of rights, independent judiciaries, “frank and fearless” public services, etc.

    In the past couple of decades significant sections of the left have shifted to a more liberal position in relation to some or all of these institutions. It is wortwhile taking an inventory of factors which have driven this trend. I would include:

    * recognition (in the 1970s and 1980s) of the negative consequences of the lack of such institutions under “actually existing socialism”;

    * the influence of the “new social movements” on left thinking, including in fostering a shift away from a class-essentialist conception of the left project and from a related Jacobin “vulgar majoritarian” view of how it should be carried forward;

    * the influence of NSMs in promoting “rights agendas” which implied the desirability of rights per se and of institutional safeguards of rights;

    * a pragmatic appreciation of the usefulness of Upper Houses, minor parties, independent judiciaries and State (and local) governments in constraining the actions of a right-wing Federal government and in creating spaces for left-alternative political options to flourish.

    As I suggested in a post on a similar theme at Catallaxy, one task that remains unfinished is that of synthesising these and other trends into a theorisation and normative justification of a liberal leftism (or, perhaps, a left/green/liberal synthesis) which provides more than a pragmatic or opportunistic justification for liberal checks and balances.

  6. Benno
    March 31st, 2005 at 11:43 | #6

    “What happens to schools or historic buildings in Melbourne is of very little direct concern to a Brisvegan like myself, and vice versa.”

    Wrong.

    We are all in the same country and that means almost exactly the same society, I care if old growth forrests are depleted in Tasmania, I’d care if someone wanted to demolish Flinders street station, I care if trains don’t run on time (if they run at all) in Sydney, I care if ‘New Englanders’ don’t have proper transport infrastructure, I care if SE QLD is becoming a 200 km city and I care if Australia steals East Timor’s gas.

    I of course noted that you phrased: “I don’t give a damn if I spend most of my time 100km away or more from the poo”, as: ” …of very little direct concern to …myself.” But as you can see I consider it much the same thing.

  7. March 31st, 2005 at 11:46 | #7

    Andrew, It would leave unbalanced regions. The Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane regions being far more powerfully economically, and hence politically than, for example, the Broome, Wagga, or Alice Springs regions.

    For a federation to work, whether it is states or regions as the sub-units there has to be some level of parity at the sub-unit level. NSW and Victoria are the two strongest economically, but with Federation this economic strength was to be balanced by equal state representation in the Senate.

    With that structure the small states (Tas, SA, WA) could vote as a block against NSW or Victoria. Party politics and party discipline has put an end to that balance.

    Another issue with a unitary government is the collapse of all policy into one government. It leaves only one outcome. A solution that is being handled at the Federal level for Sydney might not be good for Kalgoorlie and vice versa.

    A dominant federal government also leaves liberty exposed. We like to think ourselves a reasonable people with reasonable politicians, but it only takes one unreasonable individual – one Putin to pollute the system and collapse absolute power into the informal executive.

    The Westminster is a weak system as it is, and the largely informal nature of our constitution leaves us open to such usurpation. A weak federal government is easy to ignore if it has the power of a state to challenge its tyranny.

    The parity at the sub-unit level has to extend to at least one of the sub-units being able to rival the federal power. Before the income tax grab in 1942, that state was NSW.

    There has to be a balance for liberty’s sake. Kind of like Mr Burns’ diseases all trying to get through the door at the same time and keeping him healthly.

    The regions would be so far less powerful than the federal government that the feds could be dictatorial in what they could demand and get away with. We have already been seeing that for the last twenty years or so with the Commonwealth/State relationship.

    I am in favour of a strong federalist model where the Commonwealth government is weak and the States strong. I believe this is the best balance between liberty, diffusing power, and enabling positive outcomes and policy from those political units.

  8. Benno
    March 31st, 2005 at 12:00 | #8

    Contrary to your comment, it takes a whole party room or caucus to “pollute the system and collapse absolute power into the informal executive.” Or more fundamentally it takes 50% +2(including David Hawker) * 50% +1, plus senate control plus plus (a malaysian phrase).

    And WTH does “pollute the system and collapse absolute power into the informal executive.” mean? It is like most posters on these fora/this forum are critical post modern literature critics.

    Until I have done an Arts degree and majored in Philosophy, then followed that with a PhD in Phenomology, I won’t be able to completely understand you and then all will suffer from lack of coherent diverse opinions.

  9. March 31st, 2005 at 12:38 | #9

    [Pr Q says he has] established that the idea of ‘regional government’ makes no sense in the Australian context

    ……..
    Not so fast there. I will again pose the question to Pr Q: what if a central-regional, rather than federal-provincial-municipal, form of government could makke gazillions of dollars of efficiencies in administrative costs? Might this not outweigh the inequities of assymetrical regional powers?
    We are at least entitled to look at the sums on this before we accept Pr Q’s oracular verdict on this.

    Most Australains are instinctive federalists. Even relatively recent arrivals in a state rapidly adopt the local rather than the national perspective on may issues.

    ……………
    No. On political economy – most Australian citizens seem to be instinctive centralists going by the direction of power transfer since Federation. The history of the the AUS state in the 20th C has been Canberra’s evolution to fiscal dominance.
    On political culture – AUS, of all nations in the world apart from Japan, is probably the most geographicly homogenous. I certainly have trouble picking a Croweater from a Sandgroper, although Queenslanders were always “a bit different”.
    The absence of any serious provincial secessionist or sectarian conflict within the AUS jurisdiction is an existence proof of the AUS’s instinctive nationalism, especially as expressed in martial and athletic endeavours. Australian citizens, thank God, do not suffer from multi-cultural pronvicialism that afflicts other nations. So this nation would certainly be more culturally hospitable to a central-regional form of government than others.
    Australians do have strong cultural loyalties to their municipal authority, but this only strenghthens the regionalist case.
    I am sympathetic to the idea of subsidiarity, which is simply the principle of personal responsibility applied to political realm: making the local “individual corporation” accountable to institutional decision making within his own jurisdiction.

  10. Econowit
    March 31st, 2005 at 13:08 | #10

    Who are these neo conservatives promoting a system that was drawn up in the horse and buggy days? Age breeds a conservative attitude.

    OK its has given us long term stability but what about the financial costs, buck passing, self promotion and dysfunctional aspects. If you want to keep it get rid of the negative aspects.

  11. Andrew Reynolds
    March 31st, 2005 at 13:29 | #11

    Jack,
    As a sandgroper I can tell you are not familiar with our issues – the idea of handing more power to Canberra is not popular here, not least with Canberra being physically and geographically remote from us. The history of centralism in Australia has always been that there is enthusiasm for it in NSW and Victoria and reluctance from elsewhere. The great power grabs by the Commonwealth have always been in response to national emergencies with the power not being handed back afterwards. This improved power base has then been used as a lever to get more.
    In WA, our loyalty is not to Perth, Bunbury or Kalgoorlie – I am a West Australian, not a Perthite. Please, do not generalise for the country on your own narrow experience.
    Your spelling seems different too.
    Econowit,
    The “…financial costs, buck passing, self promotion and dysfunctional aspects…â€? of federalism almost invariably result from the Commonwealth progressively taking over the Constitutional responsibilities of the States, IMHO. Get rid of the Commonwealth power grabs and most of this would stop. The usual pattern is: State doing a perfectly good job, Feds move in the interests of ‘harmonisation’ between the states, Feds start trying to impose a uniform way of doing it, probably using tied grants, confusion results as to responsibility, Feds offer to take over responsibility in the interests of keeping it all clear, State rendered irrelevant or merely a service provider.
    It has happened time and again.

  12. snuh
    March 31st, 2005 at 13:38 | #12

    agree with you, quiggin, except for roads.

    on the one hand, the feds probably shouldn’t have a role in, say, resurfacing my street. i.e., i’m not too big a fan of “roads to recovery”, although i understand this is a funding project only, and actual spending choices are still made by local councils.

    on the other hand, the feds should clearly have a role in planning [and since they have the money, funding] our highway system, so that it functions effectively as a national system. sure, this creates all kinds of buck-passing problems, but these problems would exist anyway on account of state-local government interaction in this area.

    anyway, one need only look at the gauge problems in our “national” railway system, and in particular the impetus these problems gave to the creation of the federal government in the first place, to see the benefit of the feds having a role.

    others have pointed out the “largely informal nature of our constitution”. there is, however, one thing the constitution is excessivly precise about: railway policy. check out the provisions on the inter-state commission [sections 101-104].

  13. Econowit
    March 31st, 2005 at 13:50 | #13

    From my world view I have more experience with the lower 2 levels, I deal primarily with state and local. I think those negative aspects are common to all levels.

  14. Benno
    March 31st, 2005 at 14:15 | #14

    So Andrew, you are a Westralian? shouldn’t that be Western Australian?

  15. March 31st, 2005 at 14:23 | #15

    “The essential point of liberalism is that, in matters that don’t affect anyone else, I should be free to choose for myself.”

    Now thats what I like the hear.

    Andrew – On the contrary apart from being Australian I call myself first and foremost a Perthie. I think Jack is largely correct in his assesment.

  16. March 31st, 2005 at 14:36 | #16

    Having established to your own satisfaction that the idea of ‘regional government’ makes no sense in the Australian context, that should be, JQ. Do look at what I posted on that matter.

    Aside: I find that the more important the topic, the more work I have to do to reply and the further behind I fall and the less topical my reply gets – people move on and I miss the boat. I think that may happen with my long gestating reply to the Roman stuff on the Monday page. (And I still owe a piece on ethics!)

    But JQ is in danger of becoming a good committee man, if he keeps presenting arguments with questions begged. At least he is still revealing where he is coming from, e.g. “liberal democracy”, which is of course a contradiction in terms (sometimes those two horses pull in different directions, and you may prefer some other direction entirely anyway).

    I think I should prepare a solid lot of reply to this subtopic, too. Be warned: some of the problems are too hard to manage, and some turn out not to matter very much anyway. There’s very little left for the just-hard-enough basket.

  17. Andrew Reynolds
    March 31st, 2005 at 16:31 | #17

    Benno, I may like to have been a ‘Westralian’, but the referendum result was ignored. Not for the first (or last) were the opinions of the WA public give short shrift. Pity, because with Queensland we provide far more to the rest of the country than we take from it. (I think I can hear the flames coming…)
    Nic – I think it would be interesting to do an opinion survey amongst us Perth residents to see whether we see ourselves as Perthies, Perthites, Westralians, West Australians or Western Australians or even Australians. I doubt it could be worked up into a 70,000 page PhD thesis, though. To the main point – do you think that a majority of residents of the western third of the continent and the adjacent islands would be happy with the idea of downgrading or abolishing the States with the resultant transfer of effective power to the Commonwealth?

  18. Joseph Clark
    March 31st, 2005 at 16:49 | #18

    Does this mean you are a liberal now John? If so, might I suggest changing the by-line of your web-page to “commentary on Australian and world events from a liberal-democratic perspective”. The would have the added benefit that people could no longer confuse `social-democrat’ with `democratic socialist’ — this is a problem I have had in the past.

  19. Benno
    March 31st, 2005 at 16:56 | #19

    Andrew, Yes I do, if conditions were right.

    Whether we keep states or not or have regions or whatever, there are some powers that states hold, which would be far more efficiently administered in Canberra. Health and Education, Award wages, criminal law, police and taxes. Infrastructure including transport, ports, natural resources, electricity, gas and water, should be administered by a Canberra based independent body – (not unlike the RBA or the ACCC or the AEC) – with a philosophy of economic and population decentralisation.

    For that matter, so should big picture Urban planning, otherwise councillors of a city will be irresponsible by chasing “economic growth” when a city is already clearly too large geographically and in population, like Melbourne.

  20. Ian Gould
    March 31st, 2005 at 17:01 | #20

    < >

    I can’t speak for others Joh Bjelke-Peterson instilled in me a deep respect for the division of powers and the system of checks and balances between the various levels of government.

  21. Andrew Reynolds
    March 31st, 2005 at 17:31 | #21

    Benno,
    I find your position on centralising powers interesting. If I may paraphrase – the power should be handed over to a centralised body (I note, not a political one – does this mean you are in favour of rule by ‘experts’?) but that body should have a decentralised philosophy.
    Can you cite a few examples where the population has not followed the power? By this, I mean examples of where, following the transfer of power from one place to another location the population in the destination location has not increased. I am struggling to think of even one.
    As to the list of powers to be moved I am also struggling to imagine why moving control of WA (for example) infrastructure to a place that is between 2,000 and 3,000 km from the people who actually have to use that infrastructure would increase efficiency. Apart from anything else, 2 to 3 hours of the working day would normally be lost every day due to the time zone differences.
    Interconnection between the main infrastructure points is not really an issue here. There are only 2 paved roads and one rail line. No power, No water and no gas lines go across the state boundary, not because there is no central authority, but because they do not need to.

    Australia is much more than the southeast corner that you appear to live in. Get out and see it some time.

  22. Benno
    March 31st, 2005 at 18:27 | #22

    Andrew, I am indeed simultaenously in favour of Centralisation and decentralisation. I am not entirely sure what I think about rule by experts, such as the US style where Condoleeza Rice and Donald Rumsfield are executive decision makers but not elected. But I like the structure where government – that is departments and semi-independent bodies like the AEC – isn’t politicised. Of course overall policy development would have to come from the elected parliament and government therein, but overall management needs to be non party political to avoid porkbarreling, hopefully this system will help people overcome their “Joh” worries.

    I think you are too schematic in your outline of population following the political power. Canberra does not have political power, it is just a city like anyother. Political power federally, is more or less equally distributed fairly according to population. In my opinion, Canberra is an examlpe of no population increase, apart from buearucrats and the services that support them, Canberra has little economy which is the real power for bringing population in. For instance California is not a political powerhouse disproportionately to the other states, but it is economically. Which is a type of political power, but different again. So even if we take your premise that political power moves, which it doesn’t as your vote will still be worth the same as everyone else’s, even so it is economic power which determines population and subsequently it’s own political power of a kind as mentioned in the Californian example. So to sum up this point, with my non-politicised bodies for infrastructure and economics, this type of power and decision making would be decentralised.

    To answer your next point the buearucracy (Im terrible with this word) will not be physically moved to Canberra entirely, only the policy wonks. There will still be people on the ground who know, live in and are on some level are accountable to the people of their area to administer the overall plans of the politicians and buearucrats in Canberra. You could even have a system of ‘elections within elections’ or more simply local councils will have a larger implementation and decision making role.

    Get me to clarify anything that is dodgy as I am more or less making policy on the run Mark Latham style.

    Now to your final point, at only 18 years I have visited every state and territory and every Australian capital city at least three times, except the NT, which I have only been to once and have no memory of. As for a Western Australian connection, my great-uncle is Abbot of New Norcia. But your point certainly is taken that too many Australians know only their backyard and their favorite holiday destination.

  23. Andrew Reynolds
    March 31st, 2005 at 19:46 | #23

    Benno,
    I like some of your ideas, but, like Mark Latham’s, I don’t believe they stand up to scrutiny. For an analysis of why the bureaucrats always follow the political power, I am yet to see an analysis as good as that of C. Northcote Parkinson. This book, Parkinson’s Law, while old, is an absolute gem for those who believe that centralisation of power does not mean the centralisation of bureaucracy. It is very short, but worth a read.
    Additionally, bureaucracies hardly ever accountable to those they rule over and are only dimly accountable to those that are nominally their bosses – the politicians. That is why the power has to be as devolved as possible to allow for the best possible outcome.
    As for Canberra not being an example of the population following the political power I think your argument is a bit weak – I do not believe the 323,363 people resident in the ACT (ABS 2003) are all policy wonks and farmers. If you add in the people living just over the border in NSW the number rises substantially beyond that.

  24. April 1st, 2005 at 03:27 | #24

    Your great uncle is Abbot on New Norcia? Its a small world.

  25. April 1st, 2005 at 14:04 | #25

    Benno, How much do Backbenchers have anything to do with policy? They are told by the whips to vote along Executive Cabinet lines. When did we last see someone in the House of Representatives from the party in power do a conscience vote?

    If you read the Constitution the formal executive is the Governor-General. According to the Constitution the GG can do everything. In reality the GG is ceremonial.

    Deakin, Barton and Griffiths to their eternal shame knew this when they wrote the thing. They knew they were writing a non-explicit fictional document. Retards. Consequently we get the judicial thinking it is their right to modern breath life into what the “bearded men” considered a fictional document in the first place. Hence the constant collapse to centrism with Judicial blessing.

    The informal Executive power is the Prime Minister and Executive Cabinet. They, together with the GG, make up the Executive Council. IIRC NSW, Victoria and Qld have formalised the executive council in their consitutions with plenty of mention of the Premier. The Commonwealth Constitution makes no mention of the PM.

    Another issue with out system is that the informal power of the Executive runs across two branches of government; the Legislative and Executive. The PM essentially gets to make laws, fund them, and then implement them.

    The Westminster grew out of a hack to route power around the Monarch who used to represent the formal power of the executive. Consequently the Westminster is weak in combatting centrism as the PM sits astride two arms of government.

    It could have been worse, Griffith showed a Joh Bjelke-Peterson like understanding of the principle of seperation of powers. In one constitutional revision of his, he made the judicial subject to the legislative.

    To cap it off, the “bearded men” not only gave us a document that is fictional in many of its descriptions; they also made it difficult to change.

    We have an unchangable romance novel for a constitution. But it is ok – The Commonwealth Executive, Legislative and Judicial don’t follow it anyway.

  26. Ian Gould
    April 1st, 2005 at 15:09 | #26

    Andrew,

    Queensland is typically regarded as outside the south-east triangle but issues of infrastructure planning and the like are highly relevant to us – ask anyone who lives on the Gold Coast.

    Or anyone who wonders why the Adelaide to Darwin train link got the nod ahead of the much shorter Mt Isa to Darwin route.

    Or anyone in Tasmania interested in Basslink or anyone in Adelaide affected by power black-outs.

    Looking at Australia from a purely Western Australian attitude can be as restricting as looking at it from a purely Sydney or Melbourne perspective.

  27. Benno
    April 1st, 2005 at 17:06 | #27

    Andrew,
    Indeed you are very wise in the way of the argument and I thankyou for having a discussion with someone who can often lapse into servere bouts of smart arse-ness.
    The 330,000 people in Canberra are made up of: bureaucrats and public servants(by far the biggest group), politicians, politicial support staff, Foreign representatives, people involved in light industry at Fyshwick, students and staff at ANU, people in the publishing industry and people involved in the standard goods and services to support them. Now if you consider any of Perth, Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney or Brisbane, there is a lot more than that and they don’t even host the federal bureaucracy, only state.

    I haven’t read the book, but by the looks of it, it is a critique of government and bureaucracy, so should be a fun read. My book recomendation on the same topic is Frank Herbert’s God Emperor of Dune.

    And I repeat, power is not centralised in my plan, only bureaucracy, so I am not arguing that: “centralisation of power does not mean the centralisation of bureaucracy”, I am arguing that: “centralisation of bureaucracy does not mean centralisation of power”. But anyway I am not entirely arguing for centralisation of bureaucracy either as I mentioned in my last post, as our local councils will have a much larger say than they currently do in policy and implementation (which I haven’t yet properly outlined).

    Nic, it is not a small world, internet forums like these have just made a big world diggestable by linking people with the same interests. See what I mean about being a compulsive smartarse? I am the same in the real world.

  28. Benno
    April 1st, 2005 at 17:18 | #28

    Cameron, I only partially understand what you said, though I do know that our government largely functions through tradition rather than constitutional law. Anyway I don’t quite see what that has to do with my arguments. What you said affects all of our proposed systems based upon the current system.

    But yeah, lets get a proper constitution and a bill of rights while we’re at it.

  29. Andrew Reynolds
    April 3rd, 2005 at 16:51 | #30

    Ian,
    On the infrastructure, I think your points make a good case for devolving the decisions – the railway from the Alice is a good example of why federal infrastructure projects are not always the most sensible.
    Benno,
    When you say public servants as separate from bureaucrats I would question the distinction between the two – a bureaucrat and a public servant in this context are indistinguishable.
    On centralisation, as soon as the bureaucracy is centralised the power is centralised – one necessarily follows the other.

  30. Econowit
    April 4th, 2005 at 14:32 | #31

    Andrew,

    You have defined the biggest problem facing Australia today.

    “bureaucracies hardly ever accountable to those they rule over and are only dimly accountable to those that are nominally their bosses – the politicians. That is why the power has to be as devolved as possible to allow for the best possible outcome.”

    I do not agree with your solution of making power devolved as possible as being the only solution. The dictators of fascism (Hitler), communism (Stalin) and some in South America could make them accountable or they simply disappeared

  31. Benno
    April 5th, 2005 at 17:43 | #32

    I didn’t mean to suggest that public servants and bureaucrats are disjoint sets, that is why they weren’t seperated by a comma. Your understanding of power is narrow. I don’t think that bureaucrats have much power at all, the legislators do, the voters do, the media does, big business does. The only political power the bureaucrats have is their union. All of your posts and arguments are based on an incredibly limited and schematic idea of power.

    Does anyone disagree that Health, Education, Award wages, criminal law, police and current state taxes would be more efficiently administered at the federal level, much the way that posts and telegraphs are more efficiently adminstered federally?

  32. Econowit
    April 5th, 2005 at 22:18 | #33

    Benno,

    You must have never been on the wrong side of a tax auditor, the local building inspector, town planner,ordinance inspector, parking officer or police etc. These people have real power and guess what, they use it and some times they charge for it.

  33. Benno
    April 6th, 2005 at 18:08 | #34

    These problems you mention Econowit, will not be increased by centralisation of said powers, nor will they be lessened by more states, or transferral of current commenwealth powers to the states.

    Abuse of power on this fundamental level has some examples: A doctor using her proffessional authority inappropriately, a cop beating you up (using much more force than required), a heroin addict threatening you on the street in order to exact money.

    They can all be lessened by legislation and a commonwealth bill of rights. But they are not relevant to the power that we are talking about, or to this debate. That is because they are all people personally using their position to futher their own aims (corruption). And anyway the net effect of all of this centralisation is smaller government and smaller bureaucracy. So please keep it relevant. I look forward to more off-topic attacks designed to shut out my ideas and replicate your own, but actual discussion is most welcome too.

  34. April 6th, 2005 at 21:48 | #35

    John, I would be very interested if you have done any thinking on the industrial relations question. Beyond the obvious – i.e. Howard couldn’t care less about federalism if he can screw workers – the lack of common rule at the federal level seems to me to be the first obvious disadvantage in a unitary IR system.

  35. John Quiggin
    April 6th, 2005 at 22:16 | #36

    I have thought about a bit and need to pull my finger out and do a post

  36. Econowit
    April 7th, 2005 at 10:38 | #37

    Benny,

    To which level of power and corruption do you refer? The local councillor who has a traffic inhibitor installed in his street so that his house value increases; The state secretary of a major political party that gets his non complying building application approved in a couple of weeks, when it takes the average punter many months or; The Prime Ministers brothers company that is shown favourable treatment.

    Power (over)- under his control.

    ‘Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely’ “And remember, where you have a concentration of power in a few hands, all too frequently men with the mentality of gangsters get control. History has proven that. All power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely’.
    to quote Lord Acton.

    He learned this through many years of study and first-hand experience — He was a member of the House of Commons- a beehive of centralism.

    If you take his quote as a maxim you would could argue “concentrating power might be risky”. Which in my view is what this debate is mainly about.

    You don’t need centralisation to have smaller government and smaller bureaucracy. Reduce the size of the existing government. Advocate a strong civil society rather than burdensome government regulation that inhibits human freedom and stifles innovation and creativity. This can be done by reducing the size of government in relation to the GDP back to 25% this would give you $50 Billion pa in savings – Government was 6% of GDP at federation. See table 27.19

    http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/94713ad445ff1425ca25682000192af2/a6e24932616f91edca2569de00296982!OpenDocument

    “The danger is not that a particular class is unfit to govern. Every class is unfit to govern.� another quote from Lord Acton. The bearded men were well aware of this when they fragmented power with the federal system at the turn of the century.

  37. Benny
    April 7th, 2005 at 14:08 | #38

    ‘Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely’ – I disagree, rather I think it is more the case that:

    “Power attracts the corruptible”

    God had absolute power when he created the world and he wasn’t corrupt, but that is because he isn’t corruptible at all.

    I can’t argue much with you because I largely don’t understand your post, but I can examine this:

    “You don’t need centralisation to have smaller government and smaller bureaucracy”. What about duplication? We have 6+ times the number of bureaucrats we need, administering 6+ different systems which are incredibly similar. We could even keep the state level of government, but we only need one state, not 6+.

    So even excepting the ‘Joh’ argument, which would have merit to Joh haters, we can keep our state, without costly duplication, which would bring down the size of ‘gubment’ considerably.

  38. Econowit
    April 8th, 2005 at 12:27 | #39

    Benno,

    O.K. we have some common ground on a sort of nexus between power and corruption.

    John above describes an “overweening national government needing federalism to vote against it” This is a polite way of saying that the national government is flexing to much power and we need the other levels to counter this power.

    If we were to adopt your proposal and upset the status quo this would deliver more power to the national government. This is what the supporters of federalism are afraid of as it would mean more power in fewer hands (see Actons quote above). In my view their fears are warranted.

    Is the motivation for the abolishing one level of government solely to save money and create efficiency or is it about changing the mix of power?

    To draw from your post:
    We have 6+ times 300,000 bureaucrats we don’t need, administering 6+ different systems which are incredibly similar that in my view we need.
    If the motivation is solely to save money and create efficiency why cant it be achieved this way?

    We could reduce to 6+ times 100,000 bureaucrats we need, administering 6+ different systems which are incredibly similar that we do need.

    As I have stated before, we operated in the 1970s with a federated public sector costing 25% of the economy. Life was O.K. back then.

    .

  39. Andrew Reynolds
    April 8th, 2005 at 16:55 | #40

    Benno / Benny,
    ‘All power tends to corrupt’ means he same as ‘power attracts the corruptible’ if you accept that all of us are corruptible to a greater or lesser degree. The more power you put in anyones’s handa the more corruption you are likely to see. The reason why most of the wealthy countries around the world are either small or federations is that these factors greatly reduce the scope for corruption. The problem with government in Australia, IMHO, is not that there are too many governments it is that one of the governments tries to exercise undue power over the others, using (inter alia) its revenue raising powers. Fix that, reduce the Federal government down to the areas it should be doing and let the States do the rest – as well as raising their own taxes.

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