Time to rethink the Federation

Time to rethink the Federation

Growing up in New England I was acutely aware of the 1967 referendum for a seventh state, in northern NSW, which was lost narrowly by an ill-fated late decision to include the city of Newcastle within the proposed borders.

The opposition to the proposition was that Newcastle would never swallow being run from Armidale. But the question northern NSW was posing at the time was: why should it be run from Sydney?

<i>Illustration: Jim Pavlidis</i>

Illustration: Jim Pavlidis

At the time of the secessionist movement the value of production of northern NSW exceeded that of South Australia and those agitating for a new state wanted self-determination rather than being governed from distant Macquarie Street. Over time this disenfranchisement has grown worse. The wealth of seats in one location, Sydney, has disenfranchised others.

Federal senators, who were supposed to be the counter-balance to regional disenfranchisement, now overwhelmingly reside in these same capital cities, reinforcing the problem. In Western Australia 12 out of 12 senators reside in Perth – even New York has only two senators and our Senate was based on the US system.


Other states tell a similar story. Adelaide has 11 out of 12 SA senators, Melbourne has 10 out of the 12 senators for Victoria and Sydney has 9 out of 12 for NSW. Even Queensland, which prides itself on being decentralised, has eight out of 12 in Brisbane. We have become not so much states as city states with more and more forgotten hinterlands.

Although historians’ estimates vary, prior to 1788 Australia had upwards of 200 to 250 Aboriginal tribal areas – or “nations” – based on geographic and demographic tribal language traits. In many cases these nations were the size of an average European country. Within each nation people lived in clan groups with strict protocols for inter-clan contact.

In 1788 the colony of NSW covered two-thirds of the land mass and included New Zealand and there were no fewer than nine colonial border changes before 1901.

Since Federation Australia has been less adventurous, although Central Australia existed above South Australia for a short time in the 1920s. In 1911 the Australian Capital Territory was carved out of NSW because Melbourne and Sydney were shrewd enough to understand that if either became the capital, the other would be left behind as other towns in their states had been left behind by them.

The US took a much different approach to the creation of states. Many are “farm states”, such as Wyoming and the Dakotas, that did not require large populations to be successful. The capitals of at least 33 states are not larger than their respective states' most populous cities and many state capitals (Pierre, Bismarck, Carson City and Juneau for example) have populations the size of a large regional Australian city.

If we want true competitive forces such as a state that does not believe in payroll tax because a business is good at employing people or respects the fact that private ownership does mean you own something without states continually putting caveats on rural private properties, we need to rethink the Federation.

Up to a million people live in north Queensland, which has long wanted its own state. Queensland is larger than any state in the US, eclipsing Alaska, Texas and California. The royalties of central Queensland build roads in Brisbane and disparaging statements about hearing the banjos north of the Pine River are still the pejorative.

The white paper on Federation is a chance for Australia to move on from the bog we got stuck in in 1901. The population then was 3,773,000 compared with 23,518,000 now and we need to have foresight for future decades.

The founding fathers of Australia’s Constitution made creation of a new state a theoretically straightforward exercise (Sections 121 and 124), requiring only the consent of the Parliament of a state to form a new state within its boundaries or for two states to decide to amalgamate, although the Commonwealth is not bound by such a decision.

The provisions are so liberal that the authors of our Constitution were clearly aware that the progression to new states was not designed to stop for eternity in 1901.

The alternative to new states is to remove the states altogether and have regional administrations instead. But this would leave all power in Canberra and there are legitimate historical fears about unitary governments, whereas the principle of subsidiarity is the best defence against absolute and centralised power.

Those who are the benefactors of the present system, the city as a state, which can funnel the resources continually into their area thereby attracting more people and the greater mandate to funnel even more, will naturally want to keep the status quo.

Australia is a young and growing nation-continent and just as the creation of Melbourne as the national capital was deemed not to be the best long-term solution as the national capital, neither is the six-state condition.

Barnaby Joyce is the Minister for Agriculture and the deputy leader of the National Party.

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