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State governments are a waste of money. Get rid of them


Allan Patience

To become a respected middle power we need a streamlined national government.

AS THE Victorian government teeters on the brink of a budget deficit, and with other state governments around the country facing equally intractable challenges, we need to seriously ask whether Australia's national interest is being served by its existing federal system of government.

Are state governments, with their bureaucracies of declining quality and capacity, their armies of consultants and their legions of spin doctors really giving us value for our money? Can we really afford them?

More importantly, do we really need them?

How much longer do we have to labour under the absurd regulatory duplication and mindless populism in which state politics have become hopelessly mired?

Do we have to stand by and watch while the very small minority of talented state MPs tread water in state parliaments when they should be making contributions commensurate with their talents in the national parliament?

The answer to these questions is a resounding ''No!''

Consider, for example, the infantile and poisonous blame game that is now the most recognisable feature of relations between Canberra and its state counterparts?

Instead of modest governance addressing local needs, provincialism and policy paralysis have become the defining characteristics of state governments in Australia today. This is aggravating the alarming disaffection ordinary Australian voters are feeling about their democracy.

Consider, too, the high cost of maintaining state governments with their expensive public services and byzantine political arrangements. As events now unfolding in NSW suggest, their purpose seems too easily to descend into gaining perks and advantages for mates and cronies. The concept of the public good seems entirely foreign to them.

In the public's mind, state parliaments look increasingly like sheltered workshops for the politically disabled or exclusive clubs for political hacks and hirelings.

Ordinary Australian taxpayers are overburdened by too many political snouts in the public policy trough. Getting surplus politicians off our backs should start at state government level. There are too many of them. They are mostly wanting when it comes to weighing up local interests against national priorities. Too often their understanding of the public good is what is good for them.

If we do go ahead and jettison state governments we will soon be able to afford the Gonski reforms to fix our failing education systems. We would quickly be able to establish a national disability insurance scheme. We would have more resources for our public hospitals and we would be able to comprehensively renovate the nation's ailing infrastructure.

It is now very clear that the creaking old federal system that was designed in the late 19th century simply cannot deal with the massive challenges facing Australia in the 21st century. Times have changed but our federal system has not.

Meeting these challenges requires national institutions capable of responding swiftly and efficiently to events such as the global financial crisis, climate change, bushfires, floods and droughts, human security within and outside our borders, and threats from potential enemies.

For Australia to become a respected middle power, we need a streamlined national government that can project a progressively cosmopolitan culture, sound political values, and a foreign policy outreach that has regional appeal and international legitimacy. State governments pursuing parochial interests and issues detract from this at great cost to Australia's reputation and therefore to the nation's wellbeing.

What is to be done?

We need to set up an independent constitutional commission to educate Australians about the serious limits that our out-of-date constitutions - state and Commonwealth - are imposing on us. This should mostly be the province of people outside existing political institutions. Conventional politicians have a vested interest in opposing any changes to our political system.

The commission should dust off ideas proposed some years ago by South Australian federal MP Chris Hurford, who argued for a national government underpinned by elected regional governments whose responsibilities would be similar to local governments today.

The commission should receive public submissions and confer with community representatives all round the country before compiling an interim report to be debated in a constitutional convention in which only a minority of members should be members of any parliament in Australia.

Allan Patience is a research scholar in political science and a principal fellow in the Asia Institute in the University of Melbourne.

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  • Russia, the USA, Canada, China, Brazil and India, all the countries near Australia in area, have at least three tiers of government, though this is not the same as federalism. Italy and France, larger in population but much smaller in area, have five tiers (including the European Union).

    Every country in the world with more than 10 million people and every country of more than 500,000 square kilometres has at least three tiers of government.

    Even citizens of the oft-quoted United Kingdom have four (or, in some parts of the country, five) levels of government – the European Parliament, the UK Parliament, regional assemblies (elected in the case of Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Greater London) and unitary local authorities or, in some places, both county councils and district councils.

    There are functions of government best performed with a certain population size. Some of these are too large to be taken on by local councils but do not need the whole nation to manage them. These functions would exist irrespective of the number of tiers of government and would cause divisions and subdivisions in a national bureaucracy to be created to manage them. Looking after parks and gardens and recreation centres is best done at the local level, but municipalities are too small to run a health system. Running hospitals is best done at the level of the states, but they are too small to have their own armies.

    If the states were abolished, thus making Australia unique among the world’s large countries, the bureaucracy would remain the same size, and the levels of decision-making would remain the same. The only difference would be the people would not get to elect those who made the decisions at the intermediate level.

    Chris Curtis
    Date and time
    December 20, 2012, 8:50AM
    • @Chris Curtis

      Queensland is currently the best State to look at with the poisonous LNP newman government holding 78 seats in an 89 seat State.

      The number of "advisers" and "consultants" have not decreased, more likely increased as a result of 1 party with overwhelming numbers.

      The poisonous LNP sad sacks couldn't even do their own Budget and had to get Peter Costello in at $3,000 a day. ......... and you would think that after taxpayers shelled out that money they would have some sort of right to see the full report, but that was not to be.

      It's not so much less governments but better government ....... and Abbott and Mal Brough don't come anywhere near that criteria.

      J. Fraser
      Date and time
      December 20, 2012, 12:27PM
    • Agreed - but...

      When various responsibilities were devolved to different levels of government, the world was different. Horse/carriage, telegraphs, pen/paper/typewriter.

      We need to work out which tier of government is appropriate for what service and redraft responsibilities (and revenue). An example is early childcare, taken on by councils in absence of ownership by state/federal but possibly better owned as a responsibility further up the food chain.

      There is needless duplication/triplication and it ought to be resolved, but more than anything we will have better outcomes if the responsibility is underken at the correct level.

      As for the article, creating a commission out to abolish states will not make it happen, they will probably need to hold their own individual referendums to do it (commonwealth can't) to abolish them and they'd laugh at that as a proposal.

      Work with the states/commonwealth/councils to get the best tier of government matched to a service in goodwill and they may progressively accomodate it over a few decades, it's slowly happening by federal governments hijacking things, the reality is that we need it planned impartially.

      Forrest Hill Victoria
      Date and time
      December 20, 2012, 12:57PM
    • National Minister for Education State Minister for Education
      National Minister for Health State Minister for Health
      National Minister for Environment State Minister for Environment
      etc etc etc etc etc All shadows of themselves.
      Why all the duplication?
      State governments are as useless as tits on a bull. And that's being kind to the bull!!!!

      Date and time
      December 20, 2012, 1:30PM
    • Austria has 8+ million people and is a federal republic. So, even the 10 million threshold is too high.

      The original author's points are partly valid, but many are ignorant. The duplications between the states and commowealth were predominantly due to the commonwealth encroaching on state responsibilities, eg, school education. In such areas, the states deliver services and the commonwealth has built up a large bureaucracy that has very little actual function. If these duplications were removed, much of the inefficiency would disappear.

      And we just cannot wish the Australian constitution away, however much some might.

      Date and time
      December 20, 2012, 1:49PM
    • That may be a valid point from an administration viewpoint, but not from a revenue raising one. Taxation should be centralized as much as possible.
      Then we have overlaps in major areas, eg health and education. There are simply a whole range of services where we need a national approach, but the national approach must be sufficiently flexible to allow for regional/local needs.
      As with the legal system, the industrial relations system, our political system too is built on adversarial systems rather than cooperation and coordination.

      Date and time
      December 20, 2012, 3:11PM
    • J. Fraser,

      Queensland ought to have an Upper House (elected by the single transferable vote). If the Bligh government had had any sense, it would have constitutionally entrenched one before it lost office to keep a check on the Newman government.


      I agree that we need a new federal compact. We need to tie each level of government’s responsibilities to its tax-raising capacity.


      You are also right about Austria. My “10 million” was not the cut-off point, just a point above which no country on Earth has fewer than three levels of government.

      I agree that we need to remove duplications. But the key fact in them is the downgrading of the states’ ability to raise taxes to such an extent that the majority of each one’s budget is now from the federal government.

      Chris Curtis
      Date and time
      December 20, 2012, 3:15PM
    • @Jfraser, when the ALP hold power in Queensland for years it is great (despite their actual performance), the LNP hold power in Queenland for a couple of months, it is "poisonious"

      And yet who abolished the Queensland Upper House......"The Legislative Council was seen by the Australian Labor Party as undemocratic and a tool of patronage, and upon the establishment of a secure Labor majority in the Assembly in 1915, Labor sought the house's abolition"..... oh dear another badly thought out idea from the ALP

      Date and time
      December 20, 2012, 3:52PM
    • @Chris Curtis

      With the thumping majority the current Qld. govt. has and its single House it shows why democracies need more levels of govt.
      It would have had to have had a referendum ..... and we all know about those.


      Thank for the history lesson .... stick with it and when you are ready, advise everyone that you will be moving into the 21 century.

      J. Fraser
      Date and time
      December 20, 2012, 4:25PM
  • Why would The Age waste space on this ridiculous speculation? Somebody needs to educate Mr Patience on how the federation came into being and the key role that the States have in that Federation. He can wring his hands as much as he likes but a snowball has a better chance of surviving in hell than his wish to abolish State Governments coming true.

    Date and time
    December 20, 2012, 8:52AM

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