Regional government

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, 000 are left — 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 Australia’s geography and history, the states are natural minimal units. The idea of breaking them up into regions is simply a chimera.

47 thoughts on “Regional government

  1. “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.”

    And this would then pose the practical problems of:

    (a) whether the Federal Government would have sufficient state capacity to effectively perform all the functions currently vested in the States which it would be called on to perform under such an arrangement;

    (b) whether Federal agencies would have sufficient regional/local knowledge to manage issues currently looked after by State governments.

    In relation to environmental policymaking, there is a case for clarification of the respective powers of Federal and State governments, and for the Feds to have policy authority in relation to issues such as the Murray-Darling Basin which existing state borders are spatially out of whack with. However I think it is time we green-minded folk reconsidered our tendency to assume that Federal control is inherently more ecologically rational or virtuous than State control, and took on board Gerry Bates’ position, which is that what is most important is not which level of government is responsible for environmental policy, but that ecological rationality is built into all tiers of government which have some share of this responsibility.

  2. Regional government is, as JQ suggests, quite impractical.

    But a unitary state, as desirable as it might be, is simply impossible to achieve, given current constitutional arrangements. It would take an Australian Napoleon Bonaparte to achieve a unitary state on a sustainable basis. (And we’d need a Jacobin revolution before-hand.)

    The best that can be hoped for is a gradual relinquishment of state responsibilities, a process that couldtake centuries.

  3. The other way to “wither away the state” government bureaucracies and apparatchiks is by privatising industrial utilities, corporatising infrastructural systems and federalising community services. This appears to be the way that has evolved naturally, or at least without constructive political artifice.

  4. JQ,
    I agree with most of your points and also I am against the abolition of the States. Just two small corrections to your comments, though. The north of WA (the Kimberly and the Pilbara) could possibly be run out of Darwin on a regional scheme – but I would think they would object as they would then possibly have reduced access to the facilities of Perth – Darwin is not a good substitute there. The rest of WA would have to remain with Perth, for the reasons you identified, although Bunbury might claim otherwise.
    John Howard is not a ‘recent’ convert – in a previous comment I indicated that he suggested this in the mid 80’s. He is also right to say that it would be practically impossible to do – it would need some substantial constitutional amendments and the outlying states in particular would strongly oppose it, see it (rightly) as a naked power grab from Canberra.

  5. Health and Education can easily go completely to the feds right now. Transport, mining, power, water, gas infrastructure can also be managed on a federal scale. Wages would also need to be the same nationally.

    I would propose dividing Australia up into “city state” councils, which would compete against each other economically. Each council would be based in a town or city and control some of the surrounding area as well. Minimal change here from our current council system and avoids your problem of north vs far north queensland.

    In time, laws, taxes and police forces would be integrated as well, but only after a decade of the initial changes.

  6. Personally, I’ve always thought the “city-state” model of the Australia Capital Territory is excellent.

    Canberra has no “local” governments as such, just a single unicameral parliament (elected via Hare-Clark proportional representation) for the Territory with a Westmisnter government that deals with issues ranging from garbage collection and urban planning through to education and health. It works pretty well. The only change I’d think of making is having a seperately elected executive instead of the Westmisnster-style government.

    Translated to Austalia at large, you’d either abolish the States and replace them with city based teritories, or carve up the states into city based units. The units would be areas like greater Sydney (perhaps with a seperate unit for Parramatta), greater Brisbane, Hobart, Launceston Burnie etc, etc.

  7. The regionalists came out in force in this thread. In America if you dont want to pay income tax at the state level you have the choice of moving to Florida, New Hampshire or New Mexico. In Australia you dont get that option as the State Taxes (GST) are leveraged at the federal level.

    There is liberty in diversity. There is also liberty in choice. If the federal government falls into tyranny you are stuck. Nation-states make it very difficult to move between them if you want to work. Moving between states is fairly simple though.

    The example of Ohio in America has also shown the power of business and labor fluidity. Cleveland is suffering bad as all its young are moving out to other areas. Ones with more opportunity. The states in the US do compete with each other for people. There are losers in this as Ohio has discovered, there are also winners as California, Utah, Virginia and Atlanta know full well.

    I still believe that a more efficient Australian political system will comes with the Commonwealth being shrunk back to its original (constitutional) dimensions; and policy innovation and services occurring at the state level. It at least gives multiple potential political/policy outcomes that people can judge on their merits and move between the state/territories with relative ease if they choose.

  8. State-based taxation regimes in the US are a dog’s breakfast. Some have income tax, there is a wide range of retail sales taxes, some have wealth taxes of the most byzantine complexity.

    Yes, it may be possible to minimise misery by deciding which regime is best suited to one’s life-style and personal preferences. And different tax regimes are more or less attractive for business investment. Certainly the “Sun Belt” offered inducements to “Rust Belt” businesses in the 1970s and 1980s. But I think I’m right in saying that pay rates and labour legislation was important too.

    Meanwhile, high value-added businesses in the US seem to be quite wedded to higher-taxing states.

  9. A lot of people here are saying how they’d replace the states with a lot of city-states, but they’re essentially the same thing as the regional governments John’s just criticised. Why’s John wrong? If city-states are good, what is John (and me) missing?

  10. That is a very good argument against regionalisation.

    I think the attraction of regionalisation is that it implies local control over affairs.

    Also the states come across as irrelevant now. There is often little difference in laws between states, and the federal government assumes more and more responsibility.

    The romance is that we would be all small communities running most of our own affairs, with a central governament to handle the big stuff. But perhaps the reality is not so rosy.

    What about the idea of a powerful centralist government, with no states, and beefed up local councils? Is this also good only in theory?

  11. Katz, What you are calling a dog’s breakfast, I call diversity and there is strength in diversity. We do business in 36 US States. Other than Minneapolis, which taxes the same service differently depending on if it is charged as a fixed fee or time and materials, the State/County taxation system isnt that difficult.

    As to high value business remaining in California, Massachussettes and New York; the fastest growing County in the US last year was in North Virginia – a low tax state. The Virginia sprawl is reaching West Virginia too now – another low tax state.

    Atlanta, GA has an interesting high tech industry. Charlottesville, VA is becoming a biotech hub – plus it was determined to be America’s best city for living in. Two outlier cities to California in Salt Lake City and Utah have an interesting mix of high tech industries.

    As an example of the drastic differences in taxation; property taxes for a $250,000 house in New Jersey are around the $6000 a year mark. In Virginia they are about $2800 a year; in West Virginia about $500 a year.

    Another interesting phenomonen in the US is how the highways fill up on the weekends in New Jersey with New Yorkers coming to the Jersey malls to buy cheap Jersey goods. New Jersey doesnt have sales tax on items like clothes. The New York Mayors, at least a couple of times a year, to make their shops competitive, waive the sales tax for a weekend to try and keep shoppers in New York.

  12. Since you don’t have trackback enabled at the moment, I’ve given my semi-lay person thoughts here and I believe it would be improper etiquette to reproduce a blog size post in your comments section.

  13. Why is the argument all about how a new system would divide up Australia? I have no problem with the current State Government system in principle, the main issue is what they do. They all do, in fact, exactly the same things, but in a miriad of different ways that leads to costly duplication, hopeless overstaffing by public servants and a disastrous waste of public taxation funds. What Australia needs is a standardisation of all government services accross the board. Why there should be separate systems for education, health, policing etc in WA relative to Qld escapes me. Normalisation of services will decrease the need for overbloated public service staffing and State governments can get on with the business of administering dustbins and drains – what else do we need them for? The tyranny of distance no longer applies and we do not need separate policy centres — only centres to ensure efficient delivery of standardised public services are necessary.

  14. “A lot of people here are saying how they’d replace the states with a lot of city-states, but they’re essentially the same thing as the regional governments John’s just criticised. Why’s John wrong? If city-states are good, what is John (and me) missing?”

    I think John anticipated this issue very well in his opening post.

    The problem would not be with the city-states themselves; for instance a Brisbane/SEQ/Northern Rivers city-state would be very viable. The problem would be with what was left over after the city-states were excised from their hinterland. This would basically be about ten rural regional rumps with small and widely scattered populations and a correspondingly narrow revenue base (and therefore permanently limited capacity for developing a strong machinery of government), yet with large responsibilities for service and infrastructure delivery, and for management of land, natural resources, ecosystems and development.

    There are various movements for “new states” in regional and hinterland Australia, and some of them recognise this reality, albeit in a backhanded way. Thus the Armidale-based proponent of a new state in northern NSW (with its southern border beginning somewhere near Lake Macquarie and extending due east inland) does not envisage that it would be viable with just the existing population and urban centres. He anticipates expansion of Newcastle as a cosmopolitan port city, creation of a new purpose-built capital between Armidale and Tamworth, and the emigration of 2 million people from Sydney to the new state. This is fanciful at one level, yet it recognises (albeit back-handedly) the demographic obstacles facing proposals for hinterland regions or new states.

  15. In 1990 Australia was divided up into regions for the purposes of ATSIC elections (now defunct). There were about 40 regions and they were based on “tribal” history and affiliations.

    Because tribal evolution was closely aligned with natural geographical features, aspects and boundaries, and related population densities, the ATSIC regional map provides a fascinating model for those who are concerned about national environmental policy.

    The abolition of our colonial relic states is an inviting prospect in such a context. There is nothing that stops us reinventing our intra-national boundaries and establishing regional governance. Its just a matter of political will. The same political will that the aboriginal people demonstrated in drawing up and agreeing to their regional map some twenty years ago.

  16. Beyond Federation

    Seventh Shed-a-Tier Congress

    University of Sydney – Darlington Centre

    16th March, 2003

    A Republic with Two Levels of Government-
    Mezzanine Regions and City Governments

    (A working Paper)

    Klaas Woldring



    Approach: This paper will argue that a Republic is not just inevitable but that it is highly desirable and that Australia should get on with creating it. The issue is really what kind of Republic because if there is not a substantial improvement on the status quo many citizens, understandably, won’t be interested in it. We could see that with the result of the 1999 Referendum . This does not mean that major constitutional changes have to be put to the electorate in one large package at the next Republic referendum. But it does mean that some broad agreement needs to emerge, that very substantial changes need to be put on the table for discussion and strategic commitments made by political parties to involve the public frequently, through plebiscites and referendums, to indicate their preferences. One such major change, the proposed abolition of the states, has been the subject of discussion of several of the community groups, political parties and individuals present here today. The debate amongst their members has focussed on what type of sub-national units should be favoured as the second tier: regions or local government, – and on the numbers of such units. This is a very important matter because, within the existing three-level structure, regional development has failed consistently in Australia – for a variety of reasons – and urban sprawl, urban traffic problems, and pollution have become a major state political issues. The position I put here favours the maintenance of local government in regional and rural areas, with expanded functions for some, powers delegated directly from the national government and, particularly, much stronger financial status. In addition, there should be regions, in part based on the Voluntary Regional Organisations (or Regional Organisation of Councils) grafted on and created by Local Government, which I have described here as Mezzanine Regions which has a particular meaning which will be explained. In addition, Australia needs City Governments, for the larger cities only, with jurisdiction for the whole of the urban areas in question. Such Governments should be elected at the same time as all Local Council elections are held nationally. Such reforms will not only strengthen both the National Government and Local Government, but would end the cumbersome, dysfunctional centralisation which has been a problem of the states ever since federation. The need to combine such reforms with the Republican issue has been questioned by some but the view expressed here is that now is the time to combine these aspirations because they are interconnected and interdependent and, together, provide a turbo charge to propel advancement which federation and the monarchical tradition has held back for a long time. Rather than a timid Minimalism we need to adopt a Maximalist approach to constitutional change. This paper is about System Change and rejects any further piecemeal tinkering if Regional Development and urban problems are going to be tackled effectively. It also presents the view that these desirable reforms cannot reasonably be expect from either of the major parties.

    The Mezzanine Concept defined.

    For a change let me start somewhere in the middle of the paper by providing a description of Mezzanine. It comes from from “Mezzanine floor levelâ€?, which basically means “in-betweenâ€? two normal levels, usually between first and second floors and more often than not, of a two-story building. The Mezzanine floor may not extend over the whole surface of the first floor because ceiling heights may differ, in large retail stores and supermarkets – and schools. But sometimes they do and yet it is not an ordinary floor in the hierarchy. What is interesting and useful for an analogy with levels of political units is what actually happens on such floors and how they are viewed by the organisation and the public. Mezzanine floors usually house support or “staffâ€? units which are not very visible to the public/customers/ clients although they are usually quite important, indeed essential to the proper functions of the organisation. The units housed there are not “front lineâ€? and generally not “lineâ€? as opposed to “staffâ€?. Sometimes they function as store space or library or archive. The administration people are found there and the coordinators behind the scenes, not often the executives. In some buildings Mezzanine floor space may also be partly sublet to professionals at lower rentals than elsewhere to boost the income of the organisation which owns the space. So the key words are, out of the way physically, fairly invisible, support and coordinating functions, maintenance and storage function, not directly interacting with the public but still a vital part of the organisation.

    Organisation of the paper:

    a. Why abolishing the states? – a political issue.
    b. The failure of regional development within the existing structures
    c. Strengthening local government and regional development
    d. Regions as adjuncts to local government – the Mezzanine Concept
    e. City Government
    f. Why should the Republic issue be connected with large-scale reform?

    a. Why abolishing the states? – a political issue.

    Most of those who are gathered here today need hardly be reminded of the major reasons why the states should be abolished although it is amazing how few people are aware of this. Perhaps not so amazing because the media rarely seriously discuss such issues. They do discuss the consequences of the problems we face but not the causes. Our three-tiered system has massive disadvantages eg. the enormous cost of our political system with far too many politicians, civil services etc has been stated well in Rodney Hall’s short text and by Mark Drummond since then; the inefficiencies of states permitting investors to play off states against each others; the administrative inefficiencies, different standards, conflicting policies on major issues of national concern requiring elaborate partnership and coordinating devices, and many time-consuming discussions and travel, to come to at least some agreements – and sometimes not.
    However, add to this the persistent failure of decentralisation and regional development in this huge continent, over many decades, aggravated by the economic rationalist public policies and privatisations of the last 15 years or so. The case for abolishing the states is very strong but neither of the major parties, with some notable exceptions of individual politicians, are interested in pursuing that objective. We can talk about desirable models to replace this system until the cows come home but unless we find the political will, and capacity, to bring about these changes the crisis will continue and become worse. These changes can only be achieved by a National Government that is determined to reverse the process. Apart from abolishing the states and creating a different sub-national level of political units this will also require substantial Government investment, intervention and regulation. Abolishing the states would provide the financial capacity to implement far-reaching changes.

    b. The failure of regional development within the existing structures

    In our existing political system structure and existing economic system decentralisation and regional development, from the 1940s onwards, has been unsuccessful. The capacity on resolve by the states to deliver on adopted policies to achieve that end was never strong and so some regions desired to become states themselves, like New England in the 1960s, for which the Constitution provides in theory. If this option had worked effectively over the last 100 years a quite different situation may have emerged in Australia. It hasn’t worked and grossly unbalanced economic development and population distribution has resulted. The very obvious centralisation of decision-making in capital cities has persisted and intensified for over 100 years. Combined with the predominantly capitalist system and the early development of urban areas around major ports, the impetus for substantial regional centres to emerge has been lacking. Stilwell (1980, 1992, 1993) has shown that capitalist decisions for investment have tended to strongly favour the existing cities on account of available labour pools and skills, markets and ports. Unless a strong National Government, which replaces Capital City decision-making for the states with a quite different agenda for regional development than in the past, one cannot reasonably expect a reversal or even a stop to the present trends. Even the most recent research demonstrates that the de-population of rural Australia is continuing. It is true that a number of regional urban centres have absorbed some of the drift away from smaller rural villages – some are doing well economically, for the moment. Certainly, the awareness of the urgent need to do something has existed at the national (federal) level for some considerable time but the effectiveness has been disappointing.

    I have briefly looked at the attempts by Labour and Coalition federal Governments over the last 15 years to boost regional development within the existing political framework, the three-tier system. I would say that it has nearly been a complete failure. That much was candidly admitted in the Report by the House of Representatives Standing Committee om Primary Industries and Regional Services (2000) – Time running Out – Shaping Regional Australia’s Future. The Report covered many areas but acknowledged the reduction of services in nearly all regional areas and recommended that this had to stop. Competition Policy got the blame for much of the decline in services, rightly so, and the Report recommended “a new focus for investment in regional Australia. Failing that “we face the danger of Australian being divided into ‘two nations’.â€? (Intro., by L. P. Committee Chair, Fran Bailey). The 92 recommendations were quite far-reaching however most were quickly rejected by the Federal Government which described them as “too costly or unrealisticâ€? (SMH, 14.3.02).

    Earlier the Productivity Commission published a Report following the Inquiry into the Impact of Competition Policy Reforms on Rural and Regional Australia (1999)
    As part of the Terms of Reference Competition Policy was generally welcomed but should ensure “that the benefits of increased competition flow to all Australians, including those living in rural and regional Australiaâ€?. Significantly it was admitted that “Competition Policy also recognises that there can also be circumstances in which restrictions on competition may be justified where there are offsetting public benefitsâ€? . The beginning of the failure of Competition Policy is flagged in this Report – confirmed by the 2000 Report mentioned above. A quote in the “Overviewâ€? is sufficiently telling:

    “many people in country Australia see National Competition Policy (NCP) as an unprecedented outbreak of “economic rationalismâ€? which ignores important social issues and poses a threat to their way of life – adversely affecting their standard of living and the adequacy of services in country Australia. NCP is widely perceived as being responsible for the withdrawal of government services, the demise of local business, the closure of country bank branches and is regarded by some as a major factor behind the population decline in parts of country Australia. NCP has also been linked to higher rates of crime, drug abuse, suicide and the creation of a demographic ‘hole’ – a shortage of young motivated people needed to maintain the social fabric to towns through involvement in the community, sporting an recreational activitiesâ€? (pp. XXIII/XXIV)

    We can add the collapse of regional aviation in 2001/2002 – directly as a result of deregulation and privatisation of airlines services – as another disastrous effect of NCP. Similarly, the de-regulation of milk production had the effect of damaging the NSW milk industry without actually achieving a decrease in the price of milk, as foreshadowed by the ideologues, but instead requiring massive compensation pay-outs to NSW victims. So what we have been witnessing since1996 is the effect of unbridled capitalism on regional Australia, basically an intensification of the effects of the more moderate capitalist system which Stilwell identified as the principal cause of 100 years of very uneven city/country economic development. Such failures were meant to be corrected by the sale of Telstra – completely unacceptable to the bush anyway – and all kinds of piecemeal tinkering by friends of Mr. Howard such as the media populist Alan Jones of Radio 2 GB. Jones came up with Farmhand Appeal, to rescue rural Australia generously with a massive water diversion plan to irrigate inland areas with the water of the big East Coast rivers. It transpired that the Telstra sale could provide some $10 m. for this purpose “to water Australiaâ€?, a deal which would leave Mr. Jones apparently not out of pocket either. The revisiting of watering Australia in this way, rejected by many scientists in the past as not feasible nor desirable, is no substitute for proper regional development. The Coalition also came up with the Solutions for Regional Australia Program (from October 2002) aimed to encourage local and regional solutions ideas into action. These schemes are run “by the community, for the communityâ€? providing grants from $1000 to $500,000. While some communities may do well out of this it would seem that such programmes are born out of desperation and lack of real commitment to regional development. It smacks of piecemeal tinkering, opportunism and lack of strategic planning. This is not to say that individuals may not have good ideas for regional development, such as for example the “dreamâ€? of Richard Pratt to replace open irrigation channels with a (covered) piped system to avoid evaporation. But even Pratt’s millions may not be enough to pull this off.

    The efforts of the ALP in relation to “regionalismâ€? , when in power, were flagged in 1993 in a Regional Task Force Report “Developing Australia – A Regional Perspectiveâ€? . The Task Force was headed by ACTU leader Bill Kelty. While the Report created an agenda to address the massive disadvantages of the regions, especially following a recession, recommendations were made for substantial expenditure to rectify unemployment and many other identified problems. Remarkably, for a Labor Government, one of the main terms of reference was to “examine factors affecting private sector investmentâ€?, seen as one major way to finance regional development. Although the Commonwealth claimed to be in favour of structural change this did not seem to be treated seriously. However, increased public borrowing was recommended, through Infra Structure Bonds. Extensive upgrading of the nations’s highways was planned in the Report. While many areas were covered, and some good recommendations made, empowering the regions to assist in this program was to be done by the creation of Regional Economic Develop Organisations (REDOs). These should be “genuinely representative of the people in the regionâ€?.

    It is difficult to say how far the ALP’s program would have gone. Some of the REDO’s got off the ground. They did seem did have some promise perhaps but by 1996, only two years after it commenced, the coalition came to power and the program was shelved.

    c. Strengthening local government and regional development

    Local government has always been the cinderella of the three-tier system of Government. Why should it continue to be? In the early 1970s the Whitlam Government attempted to link Local Government constitutionally to the Federal Government through a Referendum. This failed as the Coalition argued that it was an infringement of the federal system and principle. Such a revolutionary step was just too much for the conservative forces. Other ways were found to strengthen Local Government somewhat through changes to the Grants Commission operation. The ambition by Local Government to have a s lice of Income Tax returned to it, as far as I understand it, remained just that. In spite of this low status there is much evidence that the Australian people favour a strengthening Local Government. Local Government seminar sessions in the lead up to the Constitutional Convention (some 160?) indicated strongly that the people want Local Government recognised in the Constitution and also that they favour abolishing the states. They also want it strengthened financially and, where desirable and feasible, given greater powers. I certainly favour using the existing Local Government level as the starting point of building a more democratic Australia. However, it should be recognised that there are and will remain great variations within that level on account of the size of Council areas and their capacity to raise funds. In sparsely populated areas it will be much harder to uphold the democratic principle than in densely populated areas. Community of interest may not always be so easily determined, meaning that standardisation of services and funding formulas need to be flexible. But at least
    Local Government as distinct from Regional Government, as some of us advocate,
    is generally closer to the people and, therefore, more readily fulfils the democratic principle. With 30 or even 100 Regional Governments for many Australian the first level of Government would still be quite remote, in spite of superior means of communications. Sure, there would need to be some further amalgamations to reduce the still large number of Local Councils nationally but these details can be left for the discussion.

    Therefore, strengthening the Local Government level combined with Regional Development are desirable objectives in my view and the two need to be linked. It is the clusters of Local Government Councils, where commonality of regional interests have already been identified for some considerable time, which should form the core of regional activity. Regions in this context are territorial areas grafted on to Local Government clusters, not lines on a map or essentially primarily bio-diverse regions, so designated for environmental commonalities. They are the result of the needs of people and are, in the main, voluntarily created by Local Government clusters, not by a higher authority.

    d. Regions as adjuncts to Local Government – the Mezzanine Concept

    Such regions would then become adjuncts to Local Government, elected by them and, in the first instance, accountable to them. We could say that the regional administrations – and that description would be most appropriate – are indirectly elected by the Local Government clusters. It is only in this way that Local Government achieves the semi-independence and autonomy that brings, at least in part, Government to the people. This would end the Cinderella status of Local Government. While the Kelty Reports recognised the need for a bottom-up approach to Regional Development it did so in the sense of “broad-based communityâ€?, rather than using the existing Local Council system. There was a lot of talk of “partnership arrangements’ which are usually temporary, weakly defined channels. Of course, there are at present Local Councils which do not inspire confidence and this situation would certainly have to be addressed.

    However, such a regional organisation as suggested here, has to be defined and provided for in a new Republican Constitution. Provision has to be made for their proper functioning and operation, and for the authority flow in relation to Local Councils. The Constitution should provide a safety net for vulnerable regions, especially regions which have difficulty in maintaining themselves financially. Thus equalisation grants used by the Grant Commission to maintain comparable living standards amongst the states (as at present), to create equity, could be applied in like manner to regions, and some guidelines laid down for equitable distribution amongst the Local Government clusters. This system has worked well in the past. and there is no reason not to extend its contributions.
    The principal purpose for Local Councils to form Voluntary Regional Organisations (also referred to as the Regional Organistion of Councils or ROC) has been resource sharing. In a time that Councils experience serious financial stress, especially in rural areas the need for resource sharing has never been greater. However, as Schultze reported Voluntary Regional Organisations have been in existence for quite some time. “As early as the 1920s Councils formed regional organisations in order to improve the effectiveness of Local Government. In the 1970s the then Commonwealth Department of Urban and Regional (DURD) required the establishment of regional organisations of Local Government for the distribution of Commonwealth Grants�

    She argued that the established patters of cooperation, communication and mutual trust between member Council working together in a regional organisation provide a climate that is receptive to resource sharing. Her study covered some 24 VORs throughout Australia. Resource sharing can be defined as “any arrangement where a local government body cooperates with another body or bodies to share financial, human, physical resources to achieve an objective�. There are a great variety of services that fall under this definition. Some VORs have been very successful, other less so but it seems to me that here is the basis for successful partnerships as a natural adjunct to Local Government.

    The VROs (or ROCs) operate as a kind of Mezzanine level of government, in my view, and can be formalised, without being inflexibly standardised, in a new Republican Constitution

    e. Large City Government

    It has always baffled me how large Australian cities can be effectively governed by a plethora of small and large Municipal Councils. Of course, this has grown historically but as the metropolis grew the problems of the sprawling, uncoordinated urban areas and the many common problems called for regional solutions, really often city-wide solutions which were hard to come by. Perhaps the Metropolitan area of Sydney has suffered most from such fragmentation, lack of overall planning and problem solving.
    Whilst some would claim that there really is system in this madness pressures for amalgamation have grown – and often staunchly resisted – as the record of a recent NSW Report (2002) (by Professor Bryce? ) has shown. Yet, other large cities in the world have managed successfully to launch City Governments. In Australia the ACT may well be regarded as a City Government. Greater Brisbane has had its critics and they would say that this is not a good model to be followed by others. If so, other models need to be found. One could hardly deny that this must be desirable from the point of view of efficiency as the large city has a great number of inter-connected issues typical of any large-scale system, that cannot effectively be tackled by dozens of relatively small units. How it can or should be achieved is a different matter – and may result in suggestions by delegates and the paper by Mark Drummond. One thing should be obvious. Most Large City citizens do not identify with the Local Government of their residential area. They generally identify with the larger City of which they are residents. This is quite different from country cities and country towns. The identifications there is usually strong.

    A further introductory point can be made here and that is that it seems that the State Governments actually perform in many respects the functions of City Governments, that is Capital City Government. The business of the bush is often a somewhat cumbersome add-on, part of the explanation of the neglect of rural and regional Australia.

    f. Why should the Republic issue be connected with large-scale reform?

    Australia is in crisis and this is certainly obvious in the divide between the city and the bush. However, it is in crisis in many other ways as well – even though this may not be obvious to many. Statements about the level of GDP or the level of statistical unemployment actually hide much of what is not going well. Even the glowing reports of the OECD are misleading in my view. For that reason Minimalism in respect of creating a Republic is not what is needed and we should remember that analyses of the 1999 failed Referendum actually suggest that much.

    Economic development is highly unbalanced and mostly inadequate, while continued high levels urbanisation appear to be unstoppable. There is little serious and sustained investment in spreading economic development. The rural sector is in a state of constant siege and uncertainty. Education has been commercialised, privatised and dumbed down. Economic rationalism and privatisation of many public agencies have damaged public goods, institutions and services. High levels of insurance have made a large number of important public and private services impossible to continue. The collusion between the major parties and the mainstream media, as well the grossly inadequate electoral system, that has basically created a two-party tyranny, have blocked the emergence of quality alternatives for public policy. There has been a recurring lack of quality in the leadership of this nation. Political leaders fail to address the most fundamental issues in particular efforts to change the system. The pitiful public debate on the Republic in the 1990s is a prime example of not getting to the heart of the matter. There is no real Opposition any longer with the exception of a handful of Independents and minor party representatives Piecemeal tinkering entertains no such agenda. In fact, late in 2002 neither major party has any serious plans to address the Republic issue or constitutional change at all. Both are very much part of the many problems facing Australia, not of their solution. Really, we may ask: why should voters continue to look to them for solutions?

    The neo-liberal philosophy appears to be hell bent on shrinking the size of our Government, play along with the World Trade Organisation and the General Agreement on Trade in Services. Increasingly the major decisions about the economy are made in the Board rooms of foreign transnational corporations, especially US corporations. We have a Coalition Government that’ll do just about everything the US wants Australia to do and an Official Opposition that mostly follows suit, a political class that is increasingly becoming a comprador class. In the meantime the growing inequality of incomes, the obscene salary packages of mediocre or incompetent senior executives, and the degradation of the environment continues unabated.

    A Response to Republican Minimalism: Strategic Maximalism

    Two overriding issues have to be addressed in a new approach. First the Australian people need to be convinced that there are real benefits in a Republic for them. That means that the many and varied problems the society is facing will be addressed by the changes at the very least that they are eased and possibly resolved. Obviously a strategy including the abolition of the states, resulting in a saving of over $30 billion plus per annum, provides enormous potential to deliver additional public goods and services. Secondly, the people need to be extensively involved in the process of constitution-making resulting in ownership of the new constitution.


    Basically there are three short conclusions to this paper. In terms of the content of this paper:
    create two levels of Government: National and Local and provide for Mezzanine type of Regions based on the VOR or ROC principle to stimulate regional development – together with massive encouragement fron=m the National Government.

    Secondly, for the purpose of this Conference: plan a publication comprising the models put forward at the Conference to stimulate wider discussion.

    Thirdly, encourage voters to vote for parties that favour SYSTEM CHANGE rather than the same or similar public polic packages presented in different wrappings by Australia’s two-party tyranny. That means, in essence, that voters should start looking more closely at the policies of smaller parties, including those not now represented in Parliaments which have policies for systems change in their platform.

    Some references:

    Australian Political Science Association – Annual Conference 2000, Canberra several papers on the Referendum and Republic, available at their website
    Commonwealth of Australia (1993) – An Australian Republic – The Options – The Appendices, Vol. 2, The Report of the Advisory Committee, Government Printer
    Constitutional Centenary Foundation (1993) – Heads of State – A Comparative Perspective, Carlton, Vic
    Department of Parliamentary Library (1994) , Australian Urban and Regional Development; The Policy Challenge, Reserarch Paper No. 8, 1994
    Drummond, M. – “Costing Constitutional Change: Estimating the Costs of Five Variations on Australia’s Federal Systemâ€?, Australian Journal of Public Administration 61(4): 43- 56, December 2002
    Hall, R. (1998) – Abolish the States – Australia’s Future and a $30 billion answer to our tax problems, Pan Macmillan
    Harris, B (2002) – A New Constitution for Australia, Ashgate-Gower Asia Pacific.
    McKenna, M. (1996) – The Captive Republic – A History of Republicanism in Australia, 1788 – 1996, Cambridge University Press
    National Committee on Regional Cooperation (1993) – Productive Partnerships towards Regional Prosperity
    Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia (2000) – Time is Running Out – Shaping Regional Australia’s Future
    Patmore, P. & Jungwirth, G. (2002) – The Big Makeover – A New Australian Constitution, Pluto Press/Australian Fabian Society
    Productivity Commission (1999) – Inpact of Competition Policy Reforms on rural and Regional Australia, Commonwealth of Australia
    Schultze, Marjorie (1992) – Voluntary Regional Cooperation and Resource Sharing between Local Government, Commonwealth of Australia.
    Solomon, D. (1999) – Coming of Age. QUP
    Stilwell, Frank J. B. (1993) – Reshaping Australia : urban problems and policies, Pluto Press.
    Stilwell, Frank J. B.(1992) – Understanding cities & regions : spatial political economy, Pluto Press
    Task Force on Regional Development (1993) – Developing Australia – A Regional Perspective, three volumes, Commonwealth of Australia.
    Williams, G. (2000) – A Bill of Rights for Australia, UNSW
    Winterton, G. (1999) – Republic Resurrected, Federation Press

    WORDS 4808

  17. Klaas, thanks for your thoughts. As a point of blog etiquette, it’s preferable to provide a summary of one or two paras, along with a link to a full version for those who want to read it.

  18. Pr Q has focused on the political costs of central-regional govt system, mainly in the form of reduced horizontal equity b/w regions.
    Shouldnt he, in due diligence, also point out the economic benefits of flattened govt tiering. Particularly the increased vertical efficiency b/w the central and regional authorities, to be gained by reducing admin. duplication etc.?

  19. John,

    Just wondering if there is another Centralist model that you favour? I generally favour a more centralised system but, for the reasons you have stated above the “regional government” model is problematic.

    Do you just flatly support the current federal-state arrangement or is there another formulation that you think can work?

    It also strikes me that the current system works (more or less) for historical reasons. The Senate is far from the ‘State’s house’ as it was initially intended but still a remarkably useful institution. These sorts of things need time to sort themselves so it could well be that a ‘regional government’ system could work with some clever constitutional checks and balances with a bit of time for things to work themselves out.

  20. Personally, as someone who does not live in Sydney, Melbourne or Canberra, the idea that more power, as is implicit in the idea of regional governments, should be handed to the central government terrifies me. To me, the correct way to go to reduce the current over-government would be to shrink the federal government. The States are dying the death of 1000 cuts, of which the current bullying over the GST revenues is merely one example.
    Yes, the states are ineffective at the moment – but I would argue that this is a result of their increasing dependence on the centre, not because they are inherently wrong.
    The big grabs for power by the central government have been the result of powers handed over during emergencies, like the Great Depression, World War II and the Cold War. These have now passed and the powers should be handed back.
    “All power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. No government should be trusted with absolute power and a move to regional government is just another attempt to further centralise an already too powerful central government.

  21. There’s a lot of fundamental misunderstanding here, from JQ as well as from other readers. I’d like to clear some of it up, proceeding fairly linearly rather than in any better structured way.

    First, I’d like to make it clear that I am not yet suggesting that I have a better set of concepts; critics do not have to provide better answers. (I may provide some later.) Rather, I am trying to bring out incompletenesses and preconceptions that have clouded the analysis so far.

    Here goes.

    Look at this: “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.” There are other reasons people might want regional governments, including having a layer more responsive to them – which is not what you get by having a layer which is a mere emanation of central authority. We should distinguish between activity and the authority for the activity. (This is rather like the recurring philosophical distinction between the idea and the expression of the idea, which turns up in patents among other places.)

    Now look where a straw man has infiltrated JQ’s understanding: “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.” Here and later JQ is building in concepts of what is “natural”, based on what is current, and which naturally is inconsistent with regional government.

    We should look closer. The idea is not normally presented in the abstract; it is normally presented on the back of old affiliations, like Yorkshire and Lancashire complaining about the Heath-Walker redrawing of county boundaries for bureaucratic convenience. Sometimes it is presented romantically but concretely, as in Chesterton’s “the Napoleon of Notting Hill”. If you filter out anything concrete, you get absurdities such as those presented by the above.

    It is not necessary that each existing state and territory capital must have its own region. All that is necessary is that each such centre that has its own identity should have something sufficient to support it. For the rest, the reasoning is that each natural region should have its own centre – but nothing makes today’s centres sacrosanct. Result: Melbourne and Sydney naturally fit Switzerland’s half-canton model, e.g. Baselland and Baselstadt. It is nonsense to suppose that Geelong “naturally” belongs with Melbourne; if anything, it naturally belongs with the rest of Victoria, however reapportioned. Likewise Newcastle, which notoriously
    comes up as good market research territory by being more representative of all Australia than Sydney itself or any part thereof. And so on. There has been a fundamental misunderstanding of “natural”, which will come out again below.

    Look further: “…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.”

    There’s a hint here; JQ considers geography to be the determinant, not recognising that the very antipathies he cites are demonstrations that these are not natural regions. As it happens, the geography isn’t right; natural geographical regions are separated by mountains, deserts, and open stretches of water, including deltas and estuaries but not rivers (which form natural corridors). That’s why the Mallee and the Riverina are a geographically natural unit. North Queensland geographically splits naturally up the spine and connects along the coast; from communications links, Hughenden is a natural centre.

    But accidents of history, and natural connections among people, can override this. This is why Melbourne’s accidental head start over Port Fairy made it a naturally self sustaining vortex in its own right. (Aside: Port Fairy and one of the Rhode Island towns suffered the same historical accident, an early ship going astray and setting back development long enough that competitor towns took over. Government action can do the same, as in the prevailing of Buffalo, New York over other potential canal termini.) Even so, you should find that the Queensland antipathies are not simply historical accidents but follow the true divide rather better (does the term “Great
    Divide” sound familiar? How about the Goyder line? The former is mountain, the latter desert).

    Here’s a different misunderstanding: “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…” That’s not the point; with proper regions, with proper responsiveness, you don’t get the wrong done in the first place. This is the fallacy that freedom consists in democracy. The only issue is the viability of the region – but
    the only problems that way come from slicing in ways that only allow unviable rumps. Consider a West Victoria with Geelong, a Mallee/Riverina combination, and so on. The scenario “…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.” simply does not apply. To take one instance, the centralising of hospitals is precisely one of the rural objections now; to factor it in as
    a given is to say “any regionalisation you like so long as it’s centralised”. Don’t forget, anything that genuinely did need centralising would not be given to some other region. For a comparison with Swiss history, see the pre-Napoleonic hegemony exercised by Bern; Napoleon’s liberation repaired the cantonal balance, it didn’t set up an overweening central authority and it didn’t perpetuate the false equality of Bantustans.

    Oh, don’t get the idea that the UK is a unitary state. It only looks that way through goggles that filter out mediaeval survivals and look at things with the tunnel vision of the enlightenment. A salutary reminder would be a few of Chesterton’s essays.

    So, to answer Tristan McLeay and wpc, taking them as representative:-

    – The city state idea is different from JQ’s carve up by not cutting against the grain. JQ’s real objections are what would happen if you botched the carve up and followed what he thinks is “natural”.

    – The reality of government at local level would indeed not be so rosy; but in large part that is the consequence of the ringbarking and centralising tendencies that have undercut the existing states’ moral authority and effectiveness over the last century. By the way, it is worth noticing that outside pressures as well as political infighting spiked the guns of a better federal approach – imperial federation. That is just as rosy and impractical now, though in the opposite direction. It shows that the “realism” of what is is merely a historical coincidence, and that the trick would be to work out an incremental transition that delivered something incrementally
    all the time, so it could be followed even under short termism. But the object must be to aim at what fits naturally, not to remake the people; with that, there is always some realism, no matter how far off the objective.

  22. Abolishing the states might be sellable if it was emphasised how much money would be saved by doing this in avoided duplication. As for too much power being in the hands of the feds, one way this could be avoided is to set up certain bodies that would have a degree of autonomy as is the case of the reserve bank. For example, an infrastructure corporation which allocates resources based on the long term needs of the country and not on short term political considerations.

  23. Its worth repeating Jack Strocchi’s comment # 19 30/3/2005 @ 11:51 am once more since it seems critical to the argument about the correct scale and distribution of powers in the AUS government.
    Could the potential losses, that Pr Q alleges, in horizontal equity caused by assymetrical regional powers be compensated by the potential gains, that I allege, in vertical efficiency caused by monopolisation of function?
    I shall keep hammering away at this since Pr Q’s position is lop sided in that it looks only at pains rather than gains.

  24. I agree Michael, I really like the way the AEC is run in that it completely avoids the possibility for a political gerrymander. I think Infrastructure, particuarly transport, should be run in this way at a national level.

  25. Jack,
    I find it interesting that you consider a ‘monopolisation of function’ to be a source of efficiency. In all my experience of government and the real world I have only ever seen monopolisation to be a source of inefficiency. Strong, enforced, monopolies invariably get lazy, inefficient and slow, focussing more on internal matters than on service provision. To me, this is one of the primary reasons why more powers should be devolved to the States. They can effectively compete against each other in service provision and the results are clear to see.
    In education, for example, there are several innovations that seem worthwhile – some end up with good or great results, some end up with some poor results, but they need to be tried to find out. The advantage of state (or strongly devolved) systems is that they can be tried out in a State, the results assessed and then, if it works, it can be adopted by the other States. In a unitary system this is not really possible – things are normally adopted everywhere and comparatives are less possible. If something does not work then every child suffers.
    It is the inherent monopolisation that you seem to feel is the best way that I feel is the strongest argument against this.
    I think I have answered your first point above. As for an infrastructure corporation the problems are many and manifold. Someone (presumably politicians) has to appoint the people to the board of the corporation. Once they are set up, their performance needs to be assessed. They need to be accountable to someone for their decisions. With the RBA this is easy – they have a defined set of targets (inflation), the measurement of which is with another, independent, body (the ABS). This is all clean and clear. In infrastructure, no such clarity is really possible. I hate to say it, but a politician, voted on regularly and accountable to the users of the infrastructure, is the best way to go, possibly short of full privatisation.
    I’ll start with an aside – I think the name may also have had something to do with Port Fairy losing out in the battle with Melbourne.
    Having read your response, you seem to be saying that the States should be broken up differently, with a few more added, not abolished. With political entities of the size you are advocating, local government would still be needed as ‘local’ government of the scale you are talking about would be too removed from the people being governed to be effective. More governments are not the answer.

  26. Hi J.Q.
    Great that you have opened this post on regional government and abolishing the states. My apologies on the length of my full paper presented in 2003 at a Beyond Federation Conference. I will do that differently in future by posting it on my website – where is not now. In the meantime many of my associates in such organisations as “Beyond Federation” (National), “Abolish the States Collective” (Sydney), “Shed-a-Tier” (Victoria) and “Foundation of National Renewal” (Queensland) have been alerted to your website and post. I expect they will contribute soon. They ALL favour the abolition of states but there are differences of opinion on what should replace them.

    Klaas Woldring

    Klaas Woldring

  27. Hi John
    The essence of the problem with our federal system see3ms to me:
    1. The cost. As a taxpayer I’m paying for a system that is probably $10 billion a year dearer than it should be (taking into account replacing it with a terrirorially and cit state based arrangement.
    2. The boundaries are bad eg. Northern Australia was favoured when I visited Broome, rather than links to Perth. Tasmania and the ACT give oipportunities for closer government.
    3. The number of unnecessary differences in criminal law, corporate law, transport law, foir example lead to delays in criminal proceedings, confusion for business, inability to register professionally throughout the nation, confusion for truckies and others and disparate gun, drug and other laws.
    4. We have not done what thje federation parents suggested, that our constitution should be an evolving document based on the needs of thye times, not just a 1901 document based on colonial boundaries.
    The most annoying boit is the tax. I don’t mind paying for effective democracy but ghate paying for a messy federal system
    Jiom Snow

  28. Do you have a source for the $10 billion estimate, Jim? I’d guess something a bit lower, but it would be a guess.

    I’d agree that there’s some merit in the idea of a once-off boundary adjustment, but this is a second-order issue.

  29. Jim,
    I see most of your arguments as reasons to return power to the states, not to abolish them. Having the federal government duplicate a department and then saying that the duplication is a good reason to get rid of the state department is not an effective argument.

  30. Andrew, re Jim : Jim was saying that a major issue is with inconsistencies _between_ states, separately to what the Federal Govt. is up to – problems with police cooperation between states do not prompt us to abandon Federal Government, they prompt us to think about getting rid of the States !

  31. Some general comments. I’m part of Beyond Federation / Abolish the States Collective, along with Klaas and Jim.

    Nobody I know who promotes abolition of the States wants to give the new central government a free hand; we’re all talking about optimising / increasing the checks on the Federal Government at the same time as giving it more responsibility.
    The idea that States provide diversity and liberty – well, you have to be cashed up enough to move between states, so this “freedom” can only be exercised by those well off. For the most part states are not diverse, they are only bloody minded. But, if we want experimentation, we can license regions to explicitly do that – supervised by an independent authority if need be.

  32. Part 2 of above – getting used to the interface … how do people publish such large hunks of text ???
    Mark Drummond made calculations illustrating that the current system costs us $30 billion dollars a year. While people talk about the evils of centralised power (well, let’s incorporate effective checks and balances), we can have endemic waste through duplication and coordination losses.
    Sure, lax monopolies can be an issue, but I expect the improved transparency and scrutiny would permit the minimisation of such effects. I’ve yet to see anyone put numbers to this “monopoly” issue or conduct a rigorous analysis.
    But, defining regions will necessarily be a trade off. Different things prompt centralisation on different scales, and there may be a clash between the natural scale of, say, health, and the political scale of regional unit. So, we would have to have the political region dominate, and accept the frictional loss here.People in our circles vary in their approach. Some talk about having a central Government and the more-or-less current local governments. The State Government departments would be absorbed into the central Government, with expertise in those State Government departments being preserved. Klaas talks of “mezzanine” level governments, something like current Regional Organisations of Councils. Here, we eliminate the States, but still have three tiers of Government. The difference is, the mezzanine Governments do not have the full overhead of State Governments. These mezzanine governments could develop organically, removing problems of just how you delineate boundaries.

  33. John,
    All I see with what you are proposing is either:
    1. More states (perhaps by another name) or
    2. More power to the central government.
    I cannot see any other way. New oversight bodies on the central (no longer Federal) government simply increase the costs and therefore reduce the benefits of abolishing the States, while adding to the bureaucracy you claim to be reducing. If this is in Canberra it will also add to the distance between the governors and the governed and, if in the old State capitals then why abolish the States in the first place?
    It does not take any serious amount of money to move between the States – Even from WA it can be fairly cheap. I moved to Melbourne for a while early in my life and the cost of the bus fare was very low. It is also possible to buy a car for less than $1000 and drive it across.
    If there is inconsistency between the States then surely the States can be left to work it out. The more power you give them the more they are likely to be able to do to fix it.

  34. John and all
    What a lot of critics of proponents of simpler government have ignored is the unnecessary differences between the jurisdictions within the nation.
    For those who are happy with two sectors of government, national doing present state roles and the present local government arrangements, we would probably save over $30billion a year in government costs alone, according to preliminary estimates by Mark Drummond who is doing a PhD related to this at Canberra Uni. Add to that huge business sayings and surely we must concede lower prices, lower fees and taxes or better spent taxes.
    For those who want more local power than we have now we can divert a large range of disparate laws and regulation powers to national responsibility and a number to regional or territorial or city-state responsibility. Or we could have a system of shared responsibility – the regions doing work that is best done locally. The local power could be enhanced by Senate representation. If that cost $20 billion of the $30 billion savings then it is worth it for better democracy.
    What do the names matter – state, regional, terrirory? We do not need 5 out of 9 governments that are very centralist and city based. Just one would do – the national government.

  35. The local power could be enhanced by Senate representation.

    I’m not sure I follow that. How is increasing the size of a centralist body going to enhance local power?

  36. In answer to Tristan. I don’t see why the Senate should be increased. Eg. combined local council areas could elect varying numbers of senators according to population. Eg. Sydney and Melbourne metropolitan areas 8 each, area based on Cairns and Townsville 3. As now, the Senate would be biased but to non metro areas not to states. There are other alternatives that would not increase Senate numbers. Another idea would be not to have a Senate but there are good ways to make sure the Senate would increased local power. To explain would take more space.
    Coiuld I just add a conmment on John’s remark that regions would be difficult because of the disparate population spread. Why? A region based on Dubbo would work because Dubbo is a stable population and regional viability is said by demographers to be dependent on at least one strong centre, whatever its size.
    Jim Snow

  37. Well said Jim, allow me to produce a ‘best of the comments of Jim Snow’ ‘album’.

    “We do not need 5 out of 9 governments that are very centralist and city based. Just one would do – the national government. ”

    “A region based on Dubbo would work because Dubbo is a stable population and regional viability is said by demographers to be dependent on at least one strong centre, whatever its size.”

    Keep them golden quotes coming.

  38. Andrew,
    “1. More states (perhaps by another name)”
    You have to distinguish between a State and a tier of Government. States
    have enough power to cause problems and waste. A true “intermediate”
    level is a very different thing to the States we currently have.
    “2. More power to the central government.”
    You’re not looking at net power – power keeping in mind the checks and
    balances on that power. Sure, muzzle the power of Government and you
    stop it from doing bad things – but also good things.
    “New oversight bodies on the central (no longer Federal) government
    simply increase the costs and therefore reduce the benefits of
    abolishing the States”
    They don’t _simply_ increase costs – the overall scheme saves money. Sure
    the saving is _less_ because of the oversight bodies, but we put them in
    to make for a more effective overall Government.
    “while adding to the bureaucracy you claim to be reducing.”
    Claim ? Well, we reduce the duplication in State bureaucracies. Have you
    actually compared the total of the two bureaucracies in each case ? Mark
    Drummond has made an effort.
    “If this is in Canberra it will also add to the distance between the
    governors and the governed and, if in the old State capitals then why
    abolish the States in the first place?”
    States centralise power into the different State capitals. Canberra is
    just as far as Sydney for people outside of Sydney. But the enhanced
    local Government does decentralise power below the State levels.
    “It does not take any serious amount of money to move between the States
    – Even from WA it can be fairly cheap. I moved to Melbourne for a while
    early in my life and the cost of the bus fare was very low. It is also
    possible to buy a car for less than $1000 and drive it across.”
    You’re ignoring the cost of enrolling the children in a new school,
    tranferring registration on your car, transferring your license, having
    your qualifications recognised, etc. etc. These are the things which
    are particularly State boundary related, but you also have the general
    costs of moving – developing a new social network, joining clubs, moving
    your possessions, setting up your new house and so on. These make the
    supposed freedom gained more costly. You may find moving between States
    “cheap” – perhaps it is in your case – but I find it strange you think
    your situation representative.
    “If there is inconsistency between the States then surely the States can
    be left to work it out. The more power you give them the more they are
    likely to be able to do to fix it.”
    Experience is that States get towards uniformity and then one of the States
    throws it into a bureaucratic muddle. The more power you give states, the
    more they abuse it and become bloody minded. I can give you examples if
    you like.

  39. JA, this is both a practical and a philosophical question: how can a government ever do a good thing, as opposed to provode a lesser evil? And how many necssary needs themselves only exist because the underlying need was never addressed?

    I am taking the idea that “that government is best that governs least” not as meaning that by governing less you govern better, but rather that those governments that can (and do) goevern less thereby show that they have solved the underlying problems.

    It should be read in the same sense as “happy the land that has no need of heroes” (emphasis added). Happy the land that can get away with less government – but praising “good” government is like, say, praising the US role in governing Iraq (bearing in mind that they made the Saddam Husseins in the first place). Credit only where it is deserved.

  40. “Advocate a strong civil society rather than burdensome government regulation that inhibits human freedom and stifles innovation and creativity”. When it comes to governments small is beautiful.

  41. I argee with both of your comments there Econowit and PM Laurence. Ahcieving a society like that is a worthy ambition and I put it alongside Having 2 strong levels of government (I believe that local coucils should have more power). That society can be created, Im not sure how yet, but I think it wouldn’t be too hard.

    Never-the-less none of that is inconsistent with removing the states and dividing their responsibilities, No need to introduce new arguments or rehash old at this point.

  42. P.M. Lawrence / Econowit – you seem to be assuming that Government is a necessary evil, so the more diluted it is, the better – and you also seem to say that diluting it though being dispersed, through being a Federation – is a good thing.

    But, State Governments themselves centralise power into the State Capitals – we ‘re talking about moving the “centre of gravity” for power _below_ the states.

    We also have alternatives – should we throw out a National Government entirely ? Sure, it would be nice to operate without Government at all – but if we’re going to have one – let’s have a worthwhile one.

    Government does not necessarily “stifle human reativity”, and a restructured Government system, with the States abolished, would be more enabling of human creativity.

    There are many inter-state issues which business must deal with – employment regulations, transport, etc. Non-uniformity is an obstruction to their efforts.

    I think your position presumes what you are trying to prove. You assume that humans live in some sort of “natural creative state”, which Government only interferes with. But, information about what is going on in the world around us only found out with difficulty. Its better to have restaurants regulated than find out about the bad ones only through customers ending up in hospitals through food poisoning. The list goes on.

    Then, consider medical health : the overhead of the US insurance system is about 40% – 20% scrutiny of claims, 20% profit to the insurers – and with Medicare/PBS its about 3%.

    Then there’s education. Industry, our own identity, and the ideas in circulation in the world around us – owe a lot to the public education system.

    “Natural monopolies” like water are better served through Government ownership under scrutiny – because no private firm should have that monopoly.

    We have the “classic” government operations – police, judiciary, defence – which might perhaps be said to providing a lesser evil – because if we all considerate of each other, we would not need them.

    Left to itself, freedom means people can hoard resources and then abuse the freedom of others. Government needs to intervene here. I also feel there is a point to redistributing wealth, and this is a positive outcome.

    But, mostly – the world around us is so complex, that if we were to relate to it ourselves, using our supposed individual freedom – we’d be totally dysfunctional in a dysfunctional society. We need to delegate some of our relationship with the world to a Government we have a stake in. Government has an important and positive part to play.

    Well, OK … there might be a point at which everyone spends so much of their time making sure that everyone else in contributing properly that you do have a functioning society without Government (but I do wonder about the personal overhead of the required participation) – but how to get there ? If you’re going to have Government, its better if its transparent and simple. That’s what I be lieve in – and there’s a much more obvious path for how to get there than there is for an ideal society without Government.

    I’m not sure if the above will have much influence on your view, but I have made an attempt to address them. Ultimately, it may be better to agree to disagree.

  43. I’m not assuming government is a necessary evil, I’m showing that even the best that can be claimed for it is that it meets immediate needs (some don’t even manage that). Nothing there implies that the needs are necessary except in an immediate sense; the idea is that the failure of governments to address underlying needs is what perpetuates any immediate ones that turn up.

    And that failure, while inherent in governments – like the ratcatcher always throwing one rat back – is not itself necessary. Some things are too important to be left to governments, and since governments are impermeable to reason on such things they must be handled with brutal directness.

  44. JA, all the levels of government are self serving and expansionist. They all have their centralist and expansionary traits- that’s the problem.

    Self interest is the only ideology in the public sector. Look at how the leopard changes his spots if his interests are served. We have the reds in the states promoting federalism and the blue blood ruling class in Canberra telling us how good centralism is. Obviously all they care about is themselves and creating more work at our expense.

    It is us against “them”. Australia should unite and rid itself of at least half of these sponges living on society. The easiest option in my view would be to cut across the board in each tier of government as opposed to trying to get a regional system up and going.

    The only way to do this is to reduce the amount of cash flowing to the public sector. Lets face it they are getting out of hand and so we need to cut their allowance.

  45. PL, I acknowledge your point that Government does have a vested interest to maintain problems it is involved in. But, Government does have an important and worthy contribution to make, there’s no point in throwing out the baby with the bath water. Mark Drummond has spoken about the proper set of intcentives for Government – it is something our group has discussed – and I certainly acknowledge it as an issue, but do not go as far as you do.
    EW, I don’t agree with your position – it seems your statement comprises assurances which presume what you are trying to show, and you have not engaged with any of the detail put forth so far. Let us agree to disagree.

  46. In the discussion on regional governments, has anyone considered alternate ways of linking the various levels of government so that they act more in unity than in opposition.

    For instance, since most States are bicameral (and the one that isn’t had Joh as dictator), it could be possible to link the upper house-of-review of each State Parliament to the Federal representatives of that State.

    For instance: Replace the NSW Legislative Assembly with a body consisting of both the Federal Senators and Representatives who represent NSW in Canberra. They would sit as the State chamber of review for a couple of days each month.

    It would also perhaps be possible to work the same type of linking system at a State/council level, where the State Representative members for certain regions also had responsibility as a “house of review” over the local shires and councils in that region. This would create a defacto regional model that may later evolve into something more substantial.

    Cross-linkages of this kind could have the effect of increasing the cross-fertilisation and cooperation between the three teirs of government, while substantially reducing the number of politicians. It would also give the popularly-elected representatives more control over events than the party-nominated hacks who seem to fill most state Assemblies.

    I can see some objections to such an idea, but also many benefits.s

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