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. 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.

  2. 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

  3. 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

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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 !

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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?

  12. 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

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

  15. 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.

  16. “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.

  17. 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.

  18. 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.

  19. 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.

  20. 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.

  21. 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.

  22. 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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