Former prime minister Bob Hawke’s recent call for the state governments to be abolished is worthy of support.
Labor has historically been in favour of centralisation, while the Coalition has supported federalism. So, Hawke’s position is not surprising. But leaving aside party politics, there are good reasons why Australia should consider this change to its Constitution.
Solves no problem and confers no benefit
The reason Australia has a federal Constitution is a negative one. It was due to fear from the colonies of domination by each other or by the new national government.
Taken at its best, the adoption of federalism in preference to a unitary system was the necessary price of creating Australia as a nation. At its worst, it was a base compromise pandering to colonial jealousies, which now saddles Australia with an unnecessarily complex and expensive form of government.
Unlike in countries such as Nigeria, where federalism serves the purpose of providing for ethnic autonomy, Australian federalism solves no problem and confers no benefit.
The supposed major benefit of federalism is that it provides protection against tyranny by diffusing power. But federalism does not affect what governments can do to individuals, only which government may do them. Distributions of power are not as effective a protection of liberty as are restraints on power.
Federalism cannot provide an effective limit to what the state and Commonwealth parliaments can in combination do to the individual. Only a Bill of Rights can do that.
So, Australia is left with nine governments and 15 legislative chambers for a population of 24 million.
The costs of this are staggering. In 2002, the annual costs of federalism to the economy was estimated at A$40 billion – a figure that would be much higher today.
This covers costs such as running state and territory governments, costs to the Commonwealth of interacting with the states, and compliance costs to business. But it excludes intangible costs in the form of time and inconvenience: think of simple matters such as car registration or entry into a new school system experienced by anyone who has moved interstate.
Public opinion in favour
There is ample evidence that Australians, notoriously resistant to constitutional change, would support abolishing the states.
A 2014 survey by the Griffith Federalism Project found 71% of respondents favoured changing the current system. Among this majority, there were preferences for different allocations of power between national, regional and local governments.
The idea of replacing the states with regions defined along rational economic lines was an interesting feature of these results. But even more significant were the results of a 2014 survey commissioned by lobby group Beyond Federation, in which 78% of respondents supported the idea of Australia having a single set of laws for the country. So, it seems that constitutional reform to abolish the states would be well received by voters.
Making such a change would mean that, as in New Zealand and the UK, Australia would have a single (national) parliament with comprehensive lawmaking power. That parliament could delegate lawmaking authority to regions and/or local governments, in the same way as state parliaments currently delegate power to local authorities.
However, there would be no more disputes over which lawmaking power the national parliament had, and no doubt that national law overrode regional and local law. The legal system would be much simpler, and compliance costs to business and individuals radically reduced.
Australia would also have one department of education, one department of agriculture, one department of the environment and so on, instead of multiple agencies currently.
Disputes over shares of Commonwealth revenue allocated to the states is a constant feature of federal-state relations. All that would be a thing of the past. Expenditure could be determined according to the needs of people, irrespective of where they lived and without reference to artificial state boundaries.
The current focus on “reforming” the federation avoids the real issue: why have federalism at all? If we were writing a constitution from new, would we really recreate the current nine-government system? If the answer to that is “no”, there is a good reason to change it.
Authors: Bede Harris, Senior Lecturer in Law, Charles Sturt University