Government Structure Reform Ideas

My 2007 PhD thesis dealt extensively with government structure reform options, with an emphasis on the financial costs or benefits of reform options such as New States, Unification - or the abolition of the States, regional governments, and functional transfers to achieve national systems of health, education, public order and safety, and so on.  I am confident that my thesis demonstrates that intelligent government structure reform can achieve financial and economic benefits for Australia amounting to about $50 billion (based on June 2002 dollar values), or about five per cent of gross domestic product (GDP).  Chapter 5 of my thesis observes that there's a good deal of consensus that gains in this order are indeed possible through well designed government system reforms.

In May 2009 I developed a government structure reform plan called the Australia United plan (AUP), the latest version of which is shown here.  This plan was reported by Merran Hitchick in the 10 September 2009 edition of The Land newspaper in a feature series that included the article 'Is it time to ditch the states?'.  And later in September 2009 I was invited to write an article on this plan for The Order - the National Magazine of the Order of Australia Association.  The article titled 'Abolish the states and save $50 billion' appears on page 4 of the Summer 2009–2010 edition of The Order.

In June 2009 I prepared a Critique of the 2007 Paper by Anne Twomey and Glenn Withers titled Australia's Federal Future: A Report for the Council for the Australian Federation.  This critique has been updated in July 2009.

The Beyond Federation network was formally established on 8 January 2002 to encourage improvements to our Constitution and system of government that will benefit Australia and all Australians.  Beyond Federation's aims and visions for a socially, environmentally and economically sustainable Australia, served by a "best possible" system of government, are set out in the Beyond Federation Charter.

Twelve Shed a Tier Congresses have been conducted in which participants have shared thoughts on government structure reform.  At the first of these Congresses, in Canberra on 22 June 2001, it was agreed that an organisation should form, and by January 2002 Beyond Federation's name and charter had been agreed and Beyond Federation was formally established.

Links to websites show that many Australians support the abolition of State governments or closely related government structure reforms, including a significant number of Commonwealth parliamentarians.  The local government sector has also shown strong support for the abolition of State governments or similar reforms, and a significant number of past and current State parliamentarians support such reforms as well.

Australian local governments and local government associations have consistently strived for a better deal for local government and constructive reforms to Australia's system of government generally.  A local government page provides examples of such reform efforts.

Numerous surveys and opinion polls over the years have confirmed that a significant proportion of Australians support the abolition of State governments or closely related reform of Australia's system of government.  Note especially the extremely significant findings of the Australia Institute in support of national approaches to health, education and other functions under Commonwealth government control.

Prime Minister Rudd's 2020 Summit in April 2008 generated a lot of submissions that called for various forms of government structure reform.  A compilation of 2020 Summit submissions that contain government structure reform ideas has been prepared, and my own submissions are also included here.

I don't have any narrow preference for one particular model of government for Australia, but do believe Australia would best be served by a system of government comprising strong national and local governments that serious thinking political scientists would probably classify as a decentralised unitary system of government with a degree of federal character.  A system along these lines would align with Australia's nationalist tradition and provide strong close to the people local government for the first time in our post-Federation history.  A brief paper titled The Dominance of Nationalism in Australia From Federation Till Current Times has been prepared to describe my understandings of the manner in which Australians have supported nationalism far more than federalism.

I believe the unitary-federal distinction is better described as a continuum rather than a dichotomy, but also believe that federalist ideology is more an article of faith than a coherent theory, and that the academic study of federalism is generally hollow, unscientific, dogmatic, overly legalistic, and insufficiently relevant to the day to day lives of nearly all people.  It is sometimes claimed, for example, that federal systems of government are inherently more decentralised than unitary systems.  As shown in Appendix 6A of my PhD thesis, however, Australia's federal system of government is one of the most centralised systems of government in the world, amounting to little more than duplicated centralism.

Genuine decentralisation is not achieved by assigning sovereign powers to States as huge as NSW, or even as "huge" as the ACT (where the peripheralised Gungahlin district, for example, is going to end up with a population close to that of Wagga before it gains its full set of K-12 public schools - another story, but an important illustration), but, rather, through a sort of "micro-federalism" whereby every single person is assigned real sovereignty, through a national bill of rights and responsibilities or otherwise.  The two scales of human organisation at which sovereignty should be most strongly emphasised in an island-continent-country such as Australia are (1) the mutually reinforcing geographic scale of the island-country-continent and (2) the scale of individual human beings.  Families/households and substantive local communities represent the next most important scales, hence the need for strong local governments.  Governments at the scales of NSW (comprising a third of Australia's population) and WA (a third of Australia's land area) benefit virtually nobody except those on the respective gravy trains who gain directly from the existence of the State governments of NSW, WA and indeed all five of Australia's mainland States.  Appendix 2E of my PhD thesis examines scales of human organisation that may be appropriate for Australian sub-national governments.

The shortcomings of Australia's federal system of government seem to be most pronounced in matters of life and death gravity.  There's abundant evidence in federal constitutions of various countries (where powers are transferred to the national government in times of emergency as declared by the national government) and, above all, in concrete evidence we see in disasters like Victoria's 2009 bushfire tragedy, that federalism is simply not designed to cope with emergency situations or matters of life and death gravity generally.  But whether we bring the word "federalism" into discussion or not, it is clear in any event that Australia's system of government has not coped with matters of life and death gravity at all well.  With the 2009 Victorian bushfire disaster as a constant reminder of the failings of Australia's system of government, I hope and genuinely believe that public debate in Australia will increasingly converge upon the immense and obvious merits of, and urgent need for, a fully seamless national health system, and indeed a fully seamless Australia under Commonwealth control for all matters of life and death gravity, ranging from water and environment, through aged and health care, occupational health and safety, ambulance and emergency services (including bushfire protection), and policing, to the military Defence and other national security functions (within Foreign Affairs, Customs, the Federal Police etc.) already under Commonwealth control.

I believe Australia should have uniform national laws, so I believe Australia's system of government should be unitary from a legal perspective, though I accept the need, of course, for local variations in laws where required due to substantive climatic or geographic needs.  With building standards, for example, requirements in cyclonic regions and areas at high risk of flooding and bushfires clearly need to differ from those in place elsewhere.  Such geographic and climatic variations are already recognised in Australian Standards which, in turn, are often referred to in Australian laws and regulations.  I also believe that local governments should be given significant functional and financial powers, including the powers to enact by-laws within their areas of responsibility, and that these powers should be set out in a reformed Australian Constitution that provides for local governments and assigns to such local governments the rights to form, exist, raise their own revenues, receive a just fair of national revenue in accordance with the determinations of a reformed Local Government Grants Commission, and exercise powers that would also need to be specified in the Constitution.  Such powers should include the "roads, rates and rubbish" transport, infrastructure and urban services type powers traditionally held by local governments throughout Australia today, and additional roles in local and regional development, health and human services, education and so on.

I believe the local government amalgamation debate has more than run its course.  Local government amalgamation advocates have been highly successful in achieving numerous amalgamations in the past two decades in Victoria, South Australia, Tasmania, New South Wales, and Queensland, but Australian local governments are now huge in both land area and population compared to those in countries like the United States, Canada, and most European countries, as shown in Appendix 2D of my PhD thesis.

Several members of Beyond Federation have come up with reformed government structure models, and I see significant merit in all of these.  I often think Australia would be well served by a system of government like that of California or Texas, comprising national, county and local/municipal governments. The local/municipal governments would have autonomous powers in such a system, and the counties would be administrative arms of the national government operating at the regional level.

I've had five articles on government structure reform published on Online Opinion, all between 2000 and 2002, as listed below.  As these articles indicate, I've previously (till about 2001) favoured a system comprising national and regional governments as generally understood, but have more recently (since 2002) favoured a system in which the two principle levels of government are the national and local levels as generally understood.

We need strengthened national and local governments... not states!
dated 15 May 2002
Getting a 'best possible' system of government by referendum without delay
dated 15 February 2001

A $30 billion annual boost that better government can deliver!
dated 31 January 2001

Towards a best-possible new system of government
dated 15 January 2001

Regional government can transform Australia
dated 15 July 2000

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