Thursday, February 01, 2007

Australian Federalism in an International Context

In my post Australian Constitution & the High Court Decision on Work Choices I said in part:

From experience, I have absolutely no doubt that Commonwealth Governments of all political persuasions will attempt to use the now established power. It would be silly to think otherwise. The very words the Prime Minister uses - in the national interest, in the public good - indicate this since these matters are very much in the eye of the beholder.

In my later post Water, new states and the intellectual poverty of current Australian discussions on Federalism I commented on what I saw as the quite remarkable intellectual poverty of the current Australian debate on Federalism, linking this to the decline of the New England and other new state movements because of the consistent and important role they had played in forcing constitutional discussion. I concluded:

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.

Put these two together and we have the current Federal Government with its desire to remake the constitution in its own image, subjecting the Federation to the death of a thousand cuts. I will comment on this in a moment. First, I want to put the Australian case in an international context for the benefit of my international readers.

Over the last forty years we have seen major changes in political structures at global, continental and country level. We have seen countries break up under the pressure of waring groups seeking self determination in ways that were inconceivable forty years ago. The very legitimacy of national governments has come under question.

In all this complex mix, Federal arrangements have emerged as one way of managing conflicting interests in order to preserve a measure of political unity.

In parallel, we have seen the growth of supra-national agencies and of increasingly complex international arrangements as nation states seek to deal with complex issues in a globalising world. Issues associated with joint decision making, power and resource sharing have become increasingly important. These are just the issues that are central to Federations and the constitutional theory of Federalism.

Yet despite all this, there appears to have been very little recent international discussion about the constitutional theories of Federalism. My impression is that interest in this area has been in decline since the 1960s.

Take Iraq as an example. The discussions that I have seen, I accept that I have only seem some, appear to focus on a Federal structure as a political solution. That is obviously important. However, I do find it odd that there has been so little discussion about the constitutional and theoretical bases of Federalism and their application to the Iraq situation.

In considering this question, I think it important to recognise that the world's longer lasting Federal systems such as the USA, Canada and Australia developed in different political and cultural frames.

In all cases, Federation was a way of accommodating difference. However, the constitutional theories that developed in each country were coloured by local conditions. This means that the Federal model developed in one country cannot simply be transferred to another country but must first be transmuted to meet local conditions.That said, I believe that the lessons of Federalism including the differences between federal systems can provide important guides to the future at country and trans-national levels.

Linking all this back to the Australian case. Here, or so I have argued, we need to move from the current ad-hoc approach to re-articulate the principles that should underlie our Federal structure. If I am right about the broader international context, then the conclusions we draw could well have relevance beyond the immediate Australian scene.


Lexcen said...

There is no doubt in my mind that the current mix of State and Federal interference in policy(ie hospitals) creates waste of money and resources that could be more effectively spent. Adherence to the constitution isn't my immediate concern here. Another example is the states bickering over water rights and negotiating water trading. Wouldn't a central control be more efficient? Or would we end up with the disaster similar to that of communist Russia with central economic control mis-allocating resources?

Jim Belshaw said...

Lexcen,like you, I have no doubt that the current mix of state and federal interference creates waste and, more importantly, reduces the effectiveness of policy.

Central control could well but need not be more efficient defined in narrow terms. In effectiveness terms, It would give better results in some areas, worse in others.

I hold no particular brief for Australia's present structure, after all I have wanted the increase the number of the states. I do want us to address and review Federal principles so that we don't so often end up with poor results through adhocery.

Take water. One can mount a case for Commonwealth control of the Murray Darling system. But the same case does not exist for WA water since - as I understand it - the whole river system exists within WA boundaries.