Prime Minister Scott Morrison has encouraged a national debate about so-called globalist thinking, aiming to distinguish between Australia's national interests and what he calls negative globalism. In doing so he echoed one of US President Donald Trump's favourite themes when he talks about open trade versus protectionism. The best aspect of this controversial contribution is to underline the inevitable contest between universal and parochial interests in whatever policies we choose to adopt as a nation.
But what should be a higher priority for Morrison is an examination of federalist thinking within Australia as national interests are balanced against regional and local interests. That is where the lines are increasingly blurry as some important issues are decided nationally, some within states and territories, and many others by a tug of war between the two. While Morrison was speaking, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg and Agriculture Minister David Littleproud were touring drought-stricken regions.
Federalist thinking is one of the two defining characteristics of Australian democracy, the other being Westminster parliamentary thinking. The elements of federalist thinking are the division of powers between the national/federal government and the state governments, and the bicameral nature of the Commonwealth parliament, which features a state-based Senate.
Federalism is ingrained in Australia and its institutions will not be seriously reformed in the conceivable future, but that does not mean that it is always fit for purpose. Thinking about how it works in practice deserves regular reflection.
The big question is whether federalism best serves the nation or whether a stronger central government or even a looser arrangement with further devolution to smaller local areas would serve us better. Yet business as usual almost always prevails, driving out any such deeper reflection. Think about issues like drought, abortion, asylum seekers, corruption, the disability sector and climate action. Whatever you reckon should be done, institutional responsibility is generally following well-worn rather than creative paths.
Federalism, the Australian path, is always a trade-off between benefits and costs.
The philosophical benefits include policy being made at the most appropriate level and, where possible, decisions being taken closest to those on whom they impact. Where national clarity and coordination is needed this means the higher level, including foreign policy, defence, trade, immigration, citizenship and taxation. Where policies need to be responsive to local community concerns and can be contained within state borders then decisions are taken at the lower level, including education, agriculture, health, cities and police. But almost always collaboration, coordination and joint funding is necessary.
The benefits also include adaptability to demographic diversity and the flexibility to respond appropriately to local needs. This can lead to a healthy pattern of varied policies and a desirable element of innovation and policy leadership within Australia's eight sub-national units.
The benefits often come with significant costs. Central government can be out of touch. State governments can lack the financial resources and general capacity to act within their borders. The impact of carving up the nation in a federalist way can be piece-meal outcomes for citizens. People can be better off in one part of the country than another.
Federalism can also encourage buck-passing and a dilution of responsibility. Constitutional responsibilities can be unclear and excessive legalism and time devoted to establishing who is responsible for what. Coordination and cooperation, however good in theory, can be a recipe for procrastination. There can be duplication of some services while other needs fall between the cracks created by levels of government.
Two current issues, drought and cannabis, illustrate federalism in action. Though very different the way each arena is playing out demands reflection.
Drought policy is caught between the two levels of government. It crosses state borders and constitutional responsibilities. While the federal ministers are making the running, controlling the cash and hogging the limelight, the Commonwealth government is actually far removed from the action. The states are closest to those needing help, but the Commonwealth has the money.
The ACT government regularly takes the lead on progressive social issues to the dismay not just of the more conservative parts of the ACT itself, but also of many people and governments around the nation.
Drought relief must be a cooperative activity between the Commonwealth and state governments. Yet there is a blame game going on with the federal government accusing the Queensland and Victorian Labor governments of not doing enough to support farmers in crisis. Unfortunately, federalism encourages such politicking and weakens effective service delivery.
Cannabis regulation, like most social issues, is decided in Australia at the state and territory level. This need not be the case but constitutionally that is the way it is. This has enabled the ACT government to legalise small scale personal use of cannabis from January 2020. The decision illustrates the best and the worst of federalism.
The best aspect is that one jurisdiction, however small, is taking the lead on a controversial issue. The ACT government regularly plays this role on progressive social issues to the dismay not just of the more conservative parts of the ACT itself, but also of many people and governments around the nation. Its ability to play the role of social innovator is lessened by being a very small and constitutionally vulnerable territory, but the nation is better off for having a jurisdiction willing to stick its neck out.
The worst governance aspect is the uncertainty the decision creates within a federal system. The Commonwealth government has emphasised that cannabis remains illegal under federal law and it expects the Australian Federal Police to enforce that law despite the ACT decision.
The ACT law may eventually be over-ruled, but even if that is the case, the ACT parliament, weak though it is, has played just the role one would expect in a federal system which encourages policies to vary from one sub-national unit to another.
- John Warhurst is an emeritus professor of political science at the Australian National University