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.