Saturday, January 27, 2007

Water, new states and the intellectual poverty of current Australian discussions on Federalism

Graphic: New England Flag. Since the decline of the new state movements, especially the New England Movement, the standard of constitutional debate in Australia has been impoverished.

In a post on the Prime Minister's water grab, Ninglun (Neil) suggested that I might be writing something on this. He was, of course, right. In the meantime, I wanted to comment on a related issue, the quite remarkable intellectual poverty of the current Australian debate on Federalism.

Why do I say this?

When you look at the current discussions it is all about specific topics, about relative power or, alternatively, very generalised stuff about abolition of the states or redistribution of power.

Where is the debate about the conceptual underpinnings of the Federal system, about the principles that might be followed in any constitutional restructuring? Why is there so little reference to the rich previous history of constitutional discussions, to the debates on principles that have taken place in a variety of areas from economics to geography to public administration to political theory? Why are there so few references to the principles and issues canvassed in the past?

When I think about all this, I come back to a single factor, the decline of the new state movements and especially the New England Movement after the 1967 plebiscite loss.

Today the new state cause seems arcane, even odd. Yet the New England Movement in particular was important because it presented an alternative view in a sustained and powerful way over a very long period. In saying this I am not arguing for new states, although I remain both a new stater and a proud New Englander. I am concerned with the reasons, at least as I see it, for the intellectual poverty of the Federation debate.

The Australian constitution provides for the creation of new states. However, the wording adopted created a major problem because it essentially left subdivision power in the hands of the existing states and no state government was going to agree to subdivision on a voluntary basis. The effect of the provision was to set the existing structure into stone. This meant that the new state movements were committed to constitutional reform from the beginning.

The new state movements could be and were ridiculed by the Sydney media committed to the protection of their own patch. But the movements, and especially the New England Movement, could not be ignored. Why? Consider this.

  • The New England Movement had the direct and explicit support of the great majority of the New England press and the local families who then controlled that press.
  • With some exceptions in particular areas and for particular individuals, the New England Movement was supported by the majority of the local elites.
  • Leading politicians, largely Country Party which was then the dominant political party across New England outside the lower Hunter, were committed new state supporters.
  • The Movement included some active writers and pamphleteers such as Ulrich Ellis, David Drummond or Ernest Sommerlad who occupied prominent positions and used their pen as a sword.
  • When local support was running its way - support waxed and waned depending on local conditions - the New England Movement had the capacity to mobilise in a big way. In 1961, for example, it raised 100,000 pounds - probably around $1.7 million in today's terms - to fund the next stage of its then campaign.

So the Movement had an impact.

To support its case, the Movement worked at two linked levels in constitutional terms.

At one level it had to define a constitutional basis to support its broad case for New England self government. At a second level it worked to force a change in the Australian constitution to facilitate the creation of new states. The two were linked, in that the first provided the bullets for the second.

All this meant that the New England Movement was the single most consistent contributor to Australian constitutional debate over the sixty years from the First World War, arguing through books, pamphlets and political action for change. During this period it forced two Royal Commissions and one plebiscite at state level, at least one Royal Commission plus a Parliamentary Committee at Federal level.

In doing so, it drew in members of the metro elites including Sir John Latham, Professor Bland who founded the academic study of public administration in Australia and Professor MacDonald Holmes, Professor of Geography at Sydney University, who further articulated some of the Movement's ideas in his work on the geographic basis of government.

When the New England Movement went into decline after the 1967 plebiscite loss, its constitutional ginger role went into decline as well. As it did, so did constitutional debate.

David Drummond left school at twelve in 1902. The wording and some of the ideas expressed in his 1926 pamphlet on reforming the Australian constitution would seem old fashioned in today's terms. But the depth and logical coherence of his ideas makes recent discussion on constitutional change seem, as they are, shallow in the extreme.

We have a choice. We can proceed as of now allowing constitutional change to proceed by a series of ad hoc incremental steps. Alternatively, we can stand back from the immediate issues and try to re-articulate the principles that we think should guide our Federal structure, taking previous thinking into account.

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