Michael Keating: the future of federalism


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The federation white paper was announced to ‘create a more rational system of government for the nation that we have undoubtedly have become’. The question it must answer is whether to share responsibilities or will jurisdictions be masters of their own domain. Former top bureaucrat Michael Keating unpacks the options:

Six months ago Tony Abbott announced that through the federation white paper he wanted to “create a more rational system of government for the nation that we have undoubtedly have become”. A worth aspiration, but what does it mean in reality?

Fundamentally there are two contending doctrines regarding the future of federal-state relations in Australia. One view is that we should be working towards a clearer separation of the respective roles and responsibilities of each of the two levels of Government. The other view is that the two levels of government inevitably have to share responsibilities, and that the best way forward must be a system of cooperative federalism based on better arrangements for sharing joint responsibilities in the future.

This article will examine each of these two contending viewpoints, and their respective implications for the future of our federal system of governance. The conclusion is that each viewpoint has its merits, and in the best traditions of Australian public policy pragmatism, an amalgam of the two based on the nature of the different responsibilities for each of the different functions is probably the best outcome.

Separate roles and responsibilities

There is considerable intellectual attraction in the philosophical proposition that our system of government should be arranged so that:

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