It is refreshing that the new ALP Opposition leader, Kevin Rudd has already announced that the federal structure presents serious public management problems for Australia, but would he be bold enough to do away with federation?
This is no longer a question of piecemeal tinkering, ending up with some type of new federalism - a band-aid type of solution. The answer, surely, is to move rapidly to a two-tier structure: a national government and stronger local government aided by the Regional Organisation of Councils that, in part, is already in place. This could be described as the mezzanine layer of governance, indirectly elected by and responsible to local government.
State governments in metropolitan areas should be limited to city government only, no longer having responsibilities in rural and regional areas of Australia.
It is not just the huge cost savings that result from such a re-organisation but federal-state politicking and buck-passing will no longer frustrate massive national problems.
Earlier statements this year by the federal Treasurer Peter Costello, that state governments had become mere “branch offices” of the federal government, are close to the truth.
After the amicable July 2006 COAG meeting with the ALP state premiers John Howard claimed that co-operative federalism was working. His views on the need for greater national control over many public policy areas have been well documented.
At the subsequent premiers’ conference, addressing a non-controversial and limited agenda, the ALP Premiers expressed the wish to form a Council of States based on the Canadian model which they had studied there at a joint conference in April, 2006.
These are conservative ambitions at least partly aimed at maintaining the federal status quo and, especially, protecting the jobs and careers of hundreds of state politicians and public servants. Canada is NOT a federation but the provinces do have considerable autonomy. If that model shows anything it is that to have some autonomy as provinces a federal constitution is not needed.
What Australia needs is not a new type of quasi federalism but a unitary state that is effectively decentralised. This cannot be achieved by piecemeal tinkering. It requires a daring strategic approach with a clear vision.
The recent decision by the High Court that the new WorkChoices legislation is constitutional, and that the Corporations Power could be used for the IR legislation, has created further prospects for the centralisation and undermining of state powers.
It is of course one further step along the long road of diminishing state powers, which has been competently surveyed, in a recent Parliamentary research paper by Bennett (2006).
When conservative leaders are talking about stronger national government an interesting new dimension in this debate has arrived. The ALP should not shy away from that debate. It argues that the underlying objectives of the Coalition are unacceptable and that the federal framework is the only barrier now that frustrates their implementation. Sure, but this does not preclude the need for a new constitutional framework.
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