Some of our regular visitors raised the question as to why the need for both Federal and State Governments, or for that matter, why have states? Why not have just one central government? Unknowing to these visitors was the unpublicised fact that this just happens to be one of my areas of expertise.
“Impart this knowledge onto us” they pleaded.
That’s all I needed; an invitation to ramble on. And ramble on I do, for a fair amount of preamble is required before I get to the nitty-gritty. I’ll need to start the talk with a few words about federalism. You may feel the need to grab a drink and a table. This is a long post, and I apologise for that, but I hope I’ve made it interesting.
Here we go.
Federalism is a descriptive word for a typology of government rule. Australia, as is some other western countries, is governed under a federal system which has its own distinct characteristics, being: the agreement to federate is recorded in our Constitution; the power distribution between the Commonwealth and state governments; and the equal representation of the states.
A number of western countries are governed under a federal system, yet each system contains its own distinctiveness. Canada, the USA, and Australia for example, have federal systems that have recognisable differences. What though, is federalism? Federalism is but one form of decentralised government that differs only in degree, but not in kind, from other regionalised governments.
Isolating this description into the Australian model, we have a Commonwealth Government (as the central government) and the states and territories (the regionalised governments).
However, Australian federalism – as indicated – has its own characteristics that distinguish it from other federal systems. Three major characteristics are identified:
1. The original agreement to federate is recorded in our Constitution.
2. Power is distributed between the central government and the regional governments.
3. The regions must be equally represented (which is mainly done in the Senate).
However, not written into the Constitution – presumed rather than described – is the Westminster System of responsible government. With responsible government, ministers receive votes from the electorate; they are responsible to the electorate; and they are accountable for their public departments.
The Constitution is central to the other major characteristics of Australian federalism. It would be easy to lose ones’ self in its pages in identifying every characteristic. The Constitution, per se, formally sets out the rules governing Australia’s national government including the division of powers between the Commonwealth and state governments.
Should these two areas of government be autonomous and complimentary? This is a matter of conjecture as we consider the second characteristic of Australian federalism. The authors of Australia’s federation conceived the states as the real power in Australian politics, with the federal government charged only with those responsibilities where it was manifestly more efficient for an umbrella government to have powers. (However, the further that the last century progressed we saw more of a drift of powers from the states to Canberra).
In theory, the scope and influence of the Federal government was intended to be limited. The option to dissolve the colonies as political units and to remodel the structure of regional government was never seriously contemplated. Rather, the constitutional apparatus of the colonies was transferred to the states to operate contiguously with the new central parliament and government.
The Founding Fathers who framed the Constitution were concerned about keeping the existing colonial governments intact, and ensuring that the Commonwealth government had limited powers. The exclusive powers allocated to the central government (Part V, Section 51) included defence, overseas trade, immigration, customs and excise, issuing of currency, interstate industrial arbitration, and postal and other communications. Whereas the states were responsible for the administration of most routine services as well as key areas of economic activity, they regulated or had potential power to control most aspects of industry, energy supply, prices, courts, prisons, police, mineral exploration and development, land use, environment, welfare services, consumer affairs, ports, water resources, some form of taxation, and most aspects of criminal, civil and commercial law.
Any residual powers not set down in the Constitution were given to the states in Section 107 – a formula to deliberately limit the power of the new central government. Further evidence that the central government was not a sovereign government is with the powers allocated to the High Court. The High Court had the power to disallow legislation judged incompatible with that parliament’s constitutional powers. And in interpreting the Constitution, the High Court, in effect, defined the powers of the national and state parliaments.
The states, as I have noted, shared equal representation in the Senate. Again, the Constitution is a source of reference: Until the Parliament otherwise provides there shall be six members from each Original State. The Parliament may make laws increasing or diminishing the number of senators for each State, but so that equal representation of the several Original States shall be maintained and that no Original State shall have less than six members.
The Senate was originally intended to be a state’s house as a bulwark to federalism as well as being a chamber of review. The Senate objectively was to represent the interests of the states as equal partners in Federation.
If the states were still considered to be the real power of Australian politics, the leading question is: Why did the Australian colonies federate? In a political essence Federation gave Australia a national government that spoke and acted for the country as a whole. This overview however, does not indicate the economic or nationalistic benefits that favoured Federation, nor does it reflect the public mood of the day. I could nominate five key reasons behind the move to Federation which addresses the above deficiencies:
1. To facilitate intercolonial trade.
2. To make business easier.
4. A growing sense of nationhood.
5. To maintain and consolidate a sense of ethnic identity.
Trade and business, by no means exactly identical, can nevertheless be discussed jointly. Acting independently the colonies had their own economic and foreign investment policies, and freedom of trade between these economic rivals was stifled. The form of the federation, and especially of its industrial and tariff powers, favoured more free market/low tariff policies. The consequences, I imagine, would have been more chilling:
Without state intervention Australia would have been destined to develop rather as a poor Third World comprador economy, entirely dependent on cash crops and with a State designed only to maintain whatever measure of repression its foreign sponsors would demand.
The issue of defence was more of a logical need for a uniting voice on defending Australia. This unity did not exist prior to Federation where the colonies could raise and deploy their own armies or navies. The colonists had perceived neighbouring countries as a threat to their security, and believed that an invasion was never out of the question.
If security was threatened, it could be suggested that this could be one of the stirring factors behind the growing sense of nationhood. This cannot be substantiated, although there was a leaning towards an Australian identity as opposed to being considered say, a Victorian or an inhabitant of New South Wales. There were, however, other factors that contributed to the growing sense of nationhood.
Most of the early arrivals in Australia had come either as settlers or convicts in a time when the country as such, was a penal colony. The State, fundamentally, was under military rule. The first rumblings of nationhood developed under this repressive and militant sovereignty. In short, the brutality and human degradation of the convict system destroyed the legitimacy of the old order and made new structures of government a precognition for independence. And, perhaps more importantly, this experience focused all attention on political reform and the benefits of a reformed – but still strong – state.
Perhaps the most debated reason behind Federation was the (then) popular concept of a common policy on immigration. The colonists, being mainly Britannic Australians, wanted it kept that way. Australia’s geography – further from the colonist’s ‘home’ than almost any place on earth, and separated by only a narrow sea passage from the teeming millions of Asia – resulted in the development of a xenophobic, isolationist world view, in which psychological barriers were erected against near neighbours, and intervention in foreign affairs was only at the behest of Mother England.
From this I draw two conclusions: That the cornerstone in the foundation of Australia is racism; and that Federation was the opportunity to maintain white superiority. (England was, at the time, anti-racial). In drafting the Constitution the intention was to grant the Commonwealth power over the limited rights of immigrants, and subsequently the first act of the new Parliament was the Immigration Restriction Act: better known as . . . the White Australia Policy.
So there you have it. It was all because we didn’t like non-white people. But now we do, yet nothing else has changed. Maybe it is time we got rid of the State Governments. Really, what are they good for? In our new theatre of Federalism do they still deserve a place?