As another fractious year in politics comes to an end, Griffith University has released the results of its third biennial survey on how Australians view their federal system. It reveals a public that is losing faith in both the current structure of the federation and the ability of different tiers of government to work together to solve national problems. But the poll also reveals a public appetite for reform to which political leaders should pay close attention.
The survey finds that 38 per cent of Australians believe that the current three-tiered federal system – made up of federal (national), state and local government – does not work well. This is up from 30 per cent of respondents when the poll was first taken in 2008.
State governments are seen to be the worst performers. While their rating has improved slightly since 2010, it is apparent that the recent move to conservative rule in Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland has not altered many people’s dim view of state government. Indeed, a mere 14 per cent of Queensland residents view state government as the most effective level – just months after the Liberal National Party’s landslide victory in the March election.
Local government is now rated as the most effective level. This is in large part due to a massive collapse of faith in the national level of government, which until this year had been rated as the most effective level by a handsome margin. Four years ago it was viewed as the best performer by half of Australians, but fewer than a third of people (29 per cent) now hold this view. The deep unpopularity of both federal leaders – Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott – and the fierce partisanship of the hung parliament (elected in August 2010) have no doubt played a part here.
But if many Australians are unhappy with individual levels of government, they also feel that the federal system is suffering due to a lack of cooperation between the federal, state and local tiers. Australians overwhelmingly see intergovernmental collaboration as a desirable feature of a federal system – more than 90 per cent have said as much in successive surveys. But fewer and fewer people think that the system actually delivers on this – only a third feel that it does collaboration well, down eight points since 2008. Perhaps more worryingly, two-thirds of Australians feel that the federal and state governments are not working well together. On this measure, Australians are less satisfied with their federal system than their counterparts in the United States, Canada and Germany.
This last finding is concerning because intergovernmental cooperation is arguably more important in the Australian federal system than in these other federations. This is because the division of legislative and financial powers, while favouring the central government, gives rise to a high degree of overlap between the federal and state governments. As a result, some of Australia’s most pressing problems – whether in health, education, water management, disability or Indigenous wellbeing – cannot be addressed in the absence of effective collaboration across different tiers of government.
The last year has seen a number of public spats between Canberra and the states that have no doubt shaped people’s views about the amount of cooperation taking place in the federation. Disagreements about the collection of state mining royalties, the distribution of consumption tax (GST) revenue and the funding of major disability and education initiatives have all escalated over the last several months. These conflicts have been sharpened by partisan divisions – while government at the national level is held by Labor, Australia’s four largest states are now governed by conservative Coalition parties.
But it would be a mistake to dismiss the public’s dissatisfaction with federal-state collaboration as a superficial response to passing quarrels. The better view is that public opinion is responding to very real problems in Australia’s federal system that prevent effective cooperation occurring – and that the time has come to address them.
For some years now there has been a steady stream of reports and commentary pointing to the need to strengthen intergovernmental institutions so that they better foster federal-state collaboration. In particular, there is an emerging consensus on the need to reform the Council of Australian Governments (COAG). Despite being the hub of intergovernmental relations in Australia for over 20 years, COAG still has no formal legal status and remains in the grip of the Prime Minister – meaning that is vulnerable to being ignored when it does not suit the federal government.
Building institutional structures through which different levels of government can cooperate is not only an Australian problem. Similar challenges arise in Canada where its First Ministers’ Conference also lacks a permanent institutional base. Reform ideas floated in both Canada and Australia range from forging political agreements on improved processes, through to constitutional recognition of key intergovernmental bodies. The South African constitution goes some way towards the latter by recognising several principles of ‘cooperative government and intergovernmental relations’. The need for constitutional change along similar lines has been discussed in Australia, particularly in light of a view expressed in the High Court that ‘cooperative federalism’ is no more than a ‘political slogan’ with no part to play in constitutional interpretation.
Giving COAG formal legal status, with improved processes, would go a long way to improving federal-state cooperation. But for many members of the public, the Australian federation needs to undergo more fundamental reform. Indeed, a full two-thirds of Australians would like to see the federal system being structurally different in 20 years’ time, with the strongest preference being for a stronger system of regional government.
With their stomach for major federal reform, Australians are way out of ahead of their political representatives. In recent years governments have shown themselves reluctant to consider minor changes to cooperative arrangements, let alone the much larger task of structural reform.
It is time for the political elites to start taking seriously the views of Australians on the shape of their federation. As the lead researcher on the federalism survey, AJ Brown, wrote last week, national and state leaders need ‘to show more tangible commitment to charting the future of the federal system’. And with a federal election looming next year, there is no better time for them to start.
Dr Paul Kildea is a Lecturer in the Faculty of Law at the University of New South Wales, and Referendums Project Director at the Gilbert + Tobin Centre of Public Law
Suggested citation: P. Kildea, ‘Reforming Australia’s federation: The People Lead the Way’ UK Const. L. Blog (29th November 2012) (available at http://ukconstitutionallaw.org).