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Towards a best-possible new system of government

By Mark Drummond - posted Monday, 15 January 2001

Merely 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 that would better reflect current and future needs and aspirations of Australians, and would be an improvement on the present system in all significant respects. A number of us are beavering away at this task right now!

A best-possible system must be excellent on the basis of fundamental principles of democracy, justice, equity, efficiency, affordability and so on, but must also be understandable and plainly desirable to enough Australians to succeed in the referendum(s) that count. Obviously, all else being equal, the better a proposed new model is, the more people will vote for it!

Most people agree that if we could wipe the slate clean and start from scratch, we would probably design a system comprising the national government and between 20 and 60 regional governments. The approximately fivefold increase in Australia's population since 1901 prompted the late Ken Thomas (TNT's founder) to suggest that we needed an accompanying fivefold increase in our number of subnational governments – from the eight present states and territories to about 40 appropriately designed regions, including 30 or so centred around our biggest cities.


Mid-way through a PhD looking specifically at this government system design task, it seems to me that a best-possible system might host between 40 and 70 "close to the people" regional governments (a number sufficient to "provide a comfortable home" for our many and varied locales but not so great so as to create unwieldy coordination difficulties) with powers and responsibilities for regional economic development (including industry and labour market support elements) in addition to traditional local government functions. Regional governments would be best equipped to focus upon specific regional concerns if spared of powers and responsibilities that could be more efficiently and effectively handled by the national government.

The national government would be assigned the powers and responsibilities presently held by the states and territories except for those assigned to regional governments as above, and would be expected to assume a heightened sense of responsibility and accountability as a result. Powers and responsibilities assigned to the national and regional governments would be formalised in a new federal Constitution, which would also provide regional governments with guaranteed revenue share entitlements (like those presently used by the Commonwealth Grants Commission when determining grant levels for the states and territories). Neither the states, territories nor local governments have ever had such revenue guarantees, which are arguably the very substance of government decentralisation and federalism! The new Constitution would define a new federal system in which two levels of government – the national and regional levels – are assigned sovereign powers (that is, powers that cannot be taken away without the voluntary consent of the affected entity) and revenue entitlements.

A "one style fits all" model of government is clearly unlikely to be optimal or supported across all parts of the country. Rather, a best-possible system would probably see some areas served by two spheres of government (national and regional) and others by three (national, regional and local), depending on factors of human geography and local preferences and circumstances. Similarly, the more sparsely populated parts of the country should be allowed to form regions with populations considerably less than those formed in the capital city areas and the more densely populated parts of the country generally. To the designer overly concerned with uniformity, this might seem an untidy arrangement, however the far more important aim is to provide people and communities with uniformly good opportunities to participate in the design of government arrangements that best address their needs.

The critical importance of allowing and encouraging communities to have significant input into and ownership of government system reforms affecting them is constantly reinforced by the experiences of North American, European and Australasian democracies alike. The still-unresolved disquiet that followed the Kennett government's forced local council amalgamations in Victoria is a pertinent recent illustration of this. Reform advocates and system designers can assist by suggesting regional breakdowns and overall models of government, but affected individuals and communities must then be given ample opportunity to re-arrange and fine-tune regions in a multi-stage consensus building process until mutually satisfactory structures emerge.

Regions served by regional governments could also form regional administrative districts for national government responsibilities in education, health, the environment, law and order, safety and so on, but such administrative districts would obviously work best if geographically tailored to the specific functional need. This is especially important in life-and-death health and safety related areas where ambulance travel times, hospital locations and so on have to be taken into account. Regional headquarters for different service areas could be placed in different towns or cities – especially in rural areas – in order to share the workforce across different communities, avoid sponge city problems and generally spread the benefits of decentralisation. So a best-possible system would still host different regions for different areas of national governmental responsibility, as demanded by the different imperatives applicable to different functional areas, but not nearly the multiplicity of different regional breakdowns used by state and federal governments in the present system.

A "least pain" or "minimalist" method of achieving change as envisaged here would be to establish regional governments or "Regional State" governments as New States, and simultaneously transfer powers and responsibilities presently held by the states and territories to a reformed national government, through referenda allowed by our present Constitution.

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This is the first part of a three-part series on an alternative structure of government. Part 2 will explore the financial attractions of such a change.

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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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