Federation reform: strong support for keeping shared roles

By Stephen Easton

October 14, 2015

With a rare pause in electioneering across all jurisdictions and Malcolm Turnbull taking over the prime ministership, the time is ripe for Australian governments to get stuck into federation reform, according to public policy professor AJ Brown.

“I think the process wasn’t going where it needed to go … before the change of prime ministership,” Brown told the Institute for Public Administration Australia national conference today. He also believes there is now the “right balance of Labor and Liberal” governments across the nation to achieve lasting reform through bipartisan agreement, but little impetus from political leaders.

AJ Brown
AJ Brown

Brown said state and territory leaders appeared uninterested in making any commitments through the Council of Australian Governments that would “make the reforms stick” and argued that a clear theory or principle to guide the process still had to be found. Citizens are being left out of the process, he warned.

The professor came to the conference bearing previously unreleased results from the Future of Australia’s Federation Survey 2015, which shows what bureaucrats working in all three tiers of government think about Australian federalism. Public views have been captured in the Australian Constitutional Values Survey 2014.

Local government officials — which included elected councillors — were least satisfied with the current system. Nearly 40% of federal public servants think the system is OK, but is not currently delivering on co-operation, diversity and innovation well enough. All groups have small cohorts under 20% in either of two “no complaints” categories, with state and territory employees most sanguine about current arrangements.

While IPAA president Terry Moran opened the conference by setting out his reasons for the Commonwealth to leave schools and hospitals to the states and territories, Brown’s survey results indicate little support among public servants or the wider public for either level of government to have sole responsibility for health, education or environmental protection. As the professor wrote in The Australian today:

“Asked about five key policy areas, including schools and health, 55 per cent of adult citizens and 85 per cent of those public officials actually think what is needed is a new and better formula for sharing responsibility — not trying to divide it up.

“What’s more, federal, state and local officials all think similarly on this crucial score.

“This means the answer is truly collaborative arrangements, based on clearer principles that everyone can understand, and that are made durable — in funding and law.”

When it comes to health, 55% of Australians think it should be the sole domain of the Commonwealth, directly in opposition to Moran’s well-argued position. On the other hand, only 35.1% think the same about schools, while 32.2% think their provincial administration should have full control of education.

The highest support among those who work in the system for a federal health takeover was found in local government, with 38.9% in favour. In every other case, public officials erred on the side of keeping responsibilities shared. There is significant support inside all levels of government for sharing environmental protection responsibilities with local government, but a role for councils in health and education is not envisaged by many.

One thing is clear from the new survey data: there is strong support within the public sector for increasing collaboration between governments in all kinds of situations.

Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge

On financial matters, Brown’s data shows public sector employees are collectively very keen on two ideas in particular: providing guaranteed shares of federally collected taxes to other levels of government, and more flexibility for agencies at different levels to pool funds for shared local or regional priorities.

There is reasonable support for raising or expanding the application of the GST — which former Victorian premier John Brumby told the conference was more or less inevitable — and allowing state governments to raise more of their own revenue, particularly in Western Australia.

Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge

As Brown noted, there are some clear differences between states and levels of government that indicate a degree of tribalism and patch protection. The full results of the new survey will be released soon.

The Griffith University professor said debates and discussions like the IPAA conference with its focus on federation reform would help to define new ways of sharing responsibilities and resources between jurisdictions, and suggested the federal government’s long-awaited white paper on the subject did not need to be the be-all and end-all of the process.

But the time has come for premiers and the prime minister to provide leadership and bold ideas, which were lacking under Abbott, according to Brown.

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