Abolition of State Governments

NSW Parliament - Lights

We often hear people say that State Governments should be abolished. I disagree, although I couldn’t possibly make a better argument than Mark Speakman SC MP, Member for Cronulla, who addressed the topic in his inaugural speech in the Parliament of New South Wales.

Anyone who has an interest in this topic should read the following excerpt:

“The fourth and final matter I mentioned was federalism. The constitutional issue that attracts the greatest passion seems to be whether Australia should become a republic. But the most pressing governance issue is reform of our broken Federal system. State governments as an institution are now unpopular. Many perceive State governments to be an unnecessary duplication, a relic of colonial times. A common view is that the States should be abolished. A second view is that the Federal Constitution should be amended so that we give the national parliament an open-ended law-making power. I disagree with both these views—not because I have some sentimental or crusty old belief in so-called states’ rights, not because I think wasteful duplication between Federal and State governments is a good thing, but because there are many other reasons to disagree with those two views.

The first reason is the safety offered by a diffusion of power. Power corrupts: absolute power corrupts absolutely. Second, in a country as vast as Australia, those closest to a problem are best positioned to understand it and make better decisions. Witness in contrast the one size fits all approach of Building the Education Revolution school halls. Third, the Federal system allows States to compete with each other and to experiment. For example, when random breath testing cut the road toll in Victoria, others followed. Fourth, there is no reason to think Canberra would be better at day-to-day administration of the basics—witness pink batts. Fifth, there is no reason to think that the regional governments that would presumably replace the States would be any better at service delivery. Sixth, quality is more important than uniformity. Seventh, where harmonisation is desirable, it does not require national control. Eighth, constitutionally the States are here to stay anyway. The referenda needed to abolish them will not pass, so we need to make the most of them.

If we are over-governed, it is because the feds have increasingly occupied the field. There is no need, in my view, to have a Federal education department second-guessing and increasingly directing what the States do. We do not need both the feds and the States looking after hospitals. There is no need for the feds to become involved in city planning. If cutting red tape in business regulation is desirable, as it is, harmonisation across the States, not national direction, will commonly be the answer. Nor should we accept that centralisation is an inevitable trend. It is not a worldwide trend—look at devolution in the United Kingdom and federal systems in Germany, Switzerland, Canada and the United States.

So that is all on the theory. What can and should be done in practice? At the moment, it is a bit like the frog in boiling water. At the moment, to ask the feds, holding the cheque book, to butt out of education or hospitals would provoke a bemused or incredulous response. A reversal requires three things. First, it requires those in this Parliament and elsewhere to take up the cause of arguing for a clear demarcation of Federal and State responsibilities. Second, we must win the hearts and minds of the general public by governing with excellence and integrity. Part of the attitudinal problem to the States as a tier of government has been their chronic mismanagement, particularly here in New South Wales. But the governments of Greiner, Kennett and so on show that this need not be so. State governments of reforming zeal can leave lasting legacies. I am confident that the O’Farrell Government will be such a government. Third, against the background of attitudinal change brought about by those two matters, we then need a constitutional convention that will explore constitutional amendments which create a vertical fiscal balance between the States and the Federal Government and which enact in the constitution specific powers, such as in the area of education, where State law clearly prevails. And we need to cap in some way the external affairs power and the corporations power to the extent that they were originally intended.”

[End of quote]

Another inaugural speech on this topic worth reading is that of The Hon. Dr. Peter Phelps MLC, Government Whip in the NSW Legislative Council. As his speech is largely composed of this topic, I wont post it, although it is worth a read.  He makes a completely different set of points than Mark Speakman.

Copies of both speeches are available at http://www.parliament.nsw.gov.au under the ‘Hansard’ link.

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