Cheryl Saunders: ten principles for reforming federalism

The government’s federalism white paper process has been “inconsistent” and “opaque”, top legal expert Cheryl Saunders said at Tuesday’s John Button Oration. Although Australians are obsessed with ending vertical fiscal imbalance, maybe it’s not even necessary.

Cheryl Saunders

Cheryl Saunders

The federal government’s Reforming the Federation White Paper process has been “opaque” so far, says Melbourne Law School Laureate Professor Cheryl Saunders AO.

“The discussion paper’s reasoning is inconsistent and too opaque to encourage the public comment it purports to seek,” she thinks. “It does not lead to clear conclusions, or even clear choices, leaving outcomes to horse-trading at best.”

Discussing the ten principles for reform of the federation with journalist Jonathan Green at the John Button Oration on Tuesday night, Saunders appeared pessimistic about the process:

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  • Klaas Woldring

    I would like to refer readers to our new book December 2014 book: Beyond Federation – Options to renew Australia’s 1901 Constitution, Amazon, available in eBook and paperback formats. There are nine authors. We are of the view that federalism should be abandoned in Australia and that much more appropriate governance systems should be debated. The Reform of Federation Paper “A Federation for Our Future”, recently published by the Abbot Government seems to us another reincarnation of “cooperative federalism”, involving more piecemeal tinkering that leads nowhere.

    The Council of Australian Governments (COAG), a body originally formed
    to stimulate “cooperative federalism”, has taken on a bureaucratic existence of
    its own actually adding to the already considerable expense of federation. To
    the extent that it has managed to streamline some of the appalling duplications
    and administrative hassles of recent decades the case for replacing federation
    has actually been strengthened. To think that the huge imbalances in
    federal-state financial relations can be reversed to a pre-1942 situation is to
    ignore history. Some of those who want to turn the clock back under the motto
    that they want to improve, repair or rescue the federation are now also
    insisting that COAG should be written into Australia’s archaic Constitution. Federation has not assisted decentralisation. It is at the state level that centralisation has become a major problem. Given their financial weakness no solution can be expected from trying to turn the clock back.

    Piecemeal tinkering with the existing federation cannot make it work; underlying problems remain and grow worse. If, as some well-known academics and economists maintain, no major remedies are possible, we need to look at the several constitutional and political problems that frustrate real remedies. We need to look beyond federation as a system of government AND understand why federation no longer is a requirement for the development of the nation but has long been an increasingly costly hindrance. It is no longer a natural fit as it once was. Research by
    Griffith University and our own researcher, Dr. Mark Drummond, regularly shows
    that most Australians no longer support the federation. In short, we need a quite different structure
    and should be prepared to look at a total package of changes. Perhaps this is the explanation that few people respond to the Inquiry.

    Our first port of call would be to address the impossible situation that the Constitution cannot be amended to suit the nation as it now is and how it could be shaped for the future.
    Why is this so? That question is rarely raised in Australia, not by the major parties, not by most academics and not by our Public Broadcasters either. However, we should look well beyond the serious inadequacies of Section 128. There are plenty. That task is not beyond us.
    Secondly, the problems with Australia’s electoral systems are probably even more serious. Many people fail to see the relevance of them to constitutional change. The compulsory preferential single-member-district system has given Australia an often dysfunctional adversarial two-party system.
    The electoral system is grossly biased in favour of the major parties, who don’t like to change it. But this adversarial system blocks the generation of constitutional amendments; or, if generated, the passing of them in referendums. Moreover, only politicians – in practice of the major parties – can
    initiate constitutional amendments. The federal-state differences are further aggravated by having different parties in government in Canberra and in the states. The blame game, already a highly negative feature of the party system in lower houses, is intensified enormously by federal-state differences.

    Given that far-reaching budgetary stresses have emerged in Australia, as a result of several hard to combat factors, the cost of federation as a structure, possibly $40 billion per annum, has now become of paramount importance. In spite of this neither major party considers its replacement and the abolition of the states. Holding on to Federation, as the Government Inquiry strongly suggests, is a highly undesirable strategy. But quite apart from that the renewal of the Australian Constitution is very essential for many other reasons. One such reason is that we need much better system of
    decentralization and de-concentration of population in our five major cities. The poor use of living space in Australia and the growing traffic congestion in major cities is plainly ridiculous. For Sydney to have over 6 m. people in 2036 is a monument to the Federation’s failure, as is, of course, the absolutely parlous state of local government, the Cinderella of the system.

    Dr. Klaas Woldring is a former A/Prof of Southern
    Cross University, co-founder of Beyond Federation and Managing Editor of
    Beyond Federation – Options to renew Australia’s 1901 Constitution.
    Email: Ph. 02 4341 5170