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Local government referendum should be rejected in interests of the federation

By Grant Wyeth - posted Friday, 5 July 2013

Recently the Queensland legislature created its own bill for the succession for descendants of the British Royal family. The bill was widely mocked in the media as Queensland taking its statehood far more seriously than it should. Yet, despite the low-impact nature of the bill, Queensland reminding Canberra of its jurisdiction was a very positive development.

At the forthcoming election there will be a referendum to "recognise" local councils in the constitution. If passed, what it will actually mean is that the federal government will be able to bypass the states and fund local councils directly. This may seem like an exercise in efficiency, however, it is quite the opposite.

Along with other countries born from colonial societies like the US and Canada, Australia chose with great foresight to become a federation of states. A central government was formed to handle mutual interests, like defence, and other broad policies that would filter up from the states and a compromise would be created.


However, each region was to retain the bulk of its autonomy as the idea of federalism recognised that a central government could not obtain the unique local knowledge required to understand and govern disparate regions, with disparate needs and desires.

The shift away from this model began with the transferring of income taxation powers to Canberra in 1942. This was seen as a war-time necessity, but the power never reverted back to the states after the war (as temporary powers never do). This rearrangement of the national purse effectively made the states clients of the federal government, flipping the relationship from a bottom up to a top down model.

This referendum to recognise local councils will be a further step to entrench power in Canberra and undermine the idea and the benefits of a federal system.

However, this is not quite where the raw deal ends for the country's citizens. With very little noise coming from the states in opposition to this referendum, it has become obvious that the state branches of the two major parties are expected only to serve the political goals of their federal lords.

Far from the decentralised and power-limiting goals of our federation, we now have power concentrated within two organisations; the Labor Party, and the Liberal Party.

Across the Pacific, our political brethren in Canada, with their Federal and Westminister systems, have managed to restrain themselves from such a concentration of power.


Not only have they maintained a strong three party system at federal level (four depending on how Quebec feels on the day), but their provincial political organisations are structurally separate from their federal counterparts and not expected to do their political bidding.

Furthermore, all provinces have major "province-only" parties either currently in power or in opposition who do not have any federal affiliation (Ontario, Nova Scotia and Manitoba are the only provinces currently with governments aligned with a federal party). The Conservative Party, presently governing at federal level, has no provincial party.

What Canada has, that Australia lacks, is a proper market and competition for ideas among its political parties. This provides a safety mechanism against power grabs by any one party across jurisdictions, or any collusion between two parties, like we have in Australia.

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About the Author

Grant is a freelance writer and political analyst. Combining his background in political philosophy with his current work in the digital industry has given him great insight into evolving human interaction, technical innovation, economic intelligence and migration patterns. He is the proud owner of an Enron glow-in-the-dark yo-yo that he took from the company's London office post-bankruptcy. He is a dedicated fan of the Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Namibian cricket teams. And due to an extraordinary lack of interest from others, he is quite possibly Australia's foremost authority on Canadian politics. He is impossible to inconvenience, extremely helpful in any capacity, and always punctual. He has previously lived in London and Montreal, but currently lives in Melbourne.

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