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Regional government can transform Australia

By Mark Drummond - posted Saturday, 15 July 2000

The Head of State issue that has dominated the republic debate is merely one of many relating to our system of government that call for serious attention as we reach the Centenary of Federation.

By taking gainful advantage of the lessons learned, knowledge gained and changes realised over the past 100 years, we are ever better equipped to design a new system of government to reflect current and future needs and aspirations of Australians, and which would be an improvement on the present system in all significant respects.

Australia is both over- and under-governed


On the basis of international comparison, Australia is clearly very "heavily" governed at the sovereign state/territory and commonwealth levels, yet very "lightly" governed (arguably to the extent of chronic neglect) at the local and regional levels.

Whereas our Constitution provides Tasmanians with a state government and 12 Senate places in our national Parliament, most of regional and rural Australia are without a Senator with first-priority concern for their locality. And with local government so powerless in Australia, the 35% of Australians who live outside the capitals are far too often neglected by state and commonwealth governments whose attentions and loyalties are elsewhere.

Our present system suffers from duplicated centralism

The Australian federal system of government has, in practice, yielded what can be described as "duplicated centralism" – a system that suffers firstly because of the extent to which the eight state and territory governments duplicate the work of one another and of the commonwealth, and secondly because federal, state and the Northern Territory governments alike exercise such centralised dominance over the tier of government beneath them (the ACT being the single exception here). Australian taxpayers are lumbered with the salaries of not one but nine ministers and department heads in most areas of government responsibility. Ministers and department heads are only the ‘tips’ - the ‘icebergs’ being the vast state and commonwealth bureaucratic empires. The result is that insufficient funding trickles down to the "coal-faces" of value-adding government service provision – the schools, hospitals and so on.

Australia's state governments are among the most centralised sovereign governments in the democratic world in terms of (1) their constitutional and fiscal dominance over local government, and (2) the capital-city-centricity that arises due to the concentration of population and elected representatives in the capitals and the remoteness of hinterlands from their capital.

While being a federation per se does not necessarily incur additional costs of duplication – such costs can accrue in multi-tiered unitary systems as well – relative to other First-world federations and virtually all unitary systems of government, Australia's mix of powers between the commonwealth and the states/territories is an extremely expensive one. Among the USA, Switzerland, Canada, Australia, Germany and Belgium (six notable federations), Australia is the poorest in per-capita GDP terms, the most distant from export markets, the most sparsely populated, and probably the most critically disadvantaged by the massive costs of duplication among its two highest levels of government.


Our current system insufficiently reflects Australia's geography and patterns of settlement

Australia's wealth has indeed derived largely "off the sheep's back" and from mines, and city folk continue to be subsidised to significant extents by our more profitable agricultural and mining producers. The rural outcry is legitimate and would probably be absent if rural regions were able to retain their profits in full for their own use.

History is important, but a country's system of government must also be assessed in terms of how well and how justly it serves its people – especially its most vulnerable – and how closely it reflects its geography and settlement patterns. The regions beyond the capital cities have never had effective governments of their own to provide the quality of democracy, attention and public service they need and are entitled to.

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About the Author

Mark Drummond is a mathematics and statistics teacher at the Canberra Institute of Technology who completed a PhD thesis in 2007 at the University of Canberra titled Costing Constitutional Change: Estimates of the Financial Benefits of New States, Regional Governments, Unification and Related Reforms.

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