The three tiers of government in our Federation need major renovation. There is significant overlap in function and duplication in resources. We favour reducing the tiers of government for service delivery to two (federal and state) while retaining three tiers for governance (federal, state and local). Local government should be stripped of its service delivery functions (these should transferred to the states or commonwealth) and reworked as an instrument for local community voice and micro-level social organisation.
The renovation we propose can be achieved without changes to the Constitution of the Commonwealth.
1. Freed of service delivery, local government can become an instrument for local community voice and micro-level social organisation.
Around the globe, there is a return to localism – reviving and strengthening local forms of community and economy. Local governments, in their current form, are rarely an amenable mechanism for this sentiment. They are typically too bureaucratic, too managerial, too risk-averse, and too clunky.
Within current local government boundaries, we favour precinct-level networks (200-400 households), connected online and in-person, as infrastructure through which mutual supports and information flows can be enabled that involve the whole of the population in ‘looking after each other’ and developing local neighbourhoods and community life.
For many social, health, ecological, and security challenges, this kind of micro-level social infrastructure is essential. It is necessary if we are to facilitate neighbourly supports for older people living at home – these neighbourly supports have broken down in many places and no longer occur naturally. To be revived, they need a mechanism for facilitation.
People with disabilities and their families, parents with young children, and new settlers also require micro-level social supports. Governments assume these natural supports exist, but they have to be nurtured and maintained.
Multi-purpose infrastructure of this kind has been desperately needed in 2020 by house-bound older people, and many others who live alone. More than one third of Australians now live in a single-person household. Some communities have spontaneously engaged in mutual support for vulnerable people during COVID, but many have not.
Prevention of family violence and suicide also require localised supports based in civil society (families, neighbours and mentors). Formal services are woefully ineffective in crisis prevention, and tend to be oriented to post-crisis support. In the current explosion of suicides and mental illness generated by the COVID panic, we have lacked micro-level mechanisms to facilitate these supports.
We have three tiers of government, but none of the three are suited to building the social supports that really matter.
Micro-level organisation is also necessary for three other important functions: natural disaster prevention, preparedness and response; local climate change mitigation and adaption; and civilian organisation for national security preparedness.
Some of these functions previously fell under the heading of ‘civil defence’ during and following wartime, and the State Emergency Services in the 1950s grew out of this notion of civil defence. But these SES structures are now largely moribund, absorbed into state government bureaucracies and detached from citizen initiative. The same can be said of some volunteer fire-fighting services.
Local government, freed of service delivery, can be re-tasked for the building of local community and the facilitation of local self-help and mutual support.
2. Local government service delivery can be transferred to the states.
Local governments have a chequered history in planning, being vulnerable to influence from both property developers and NIMBY activists, with a legendary reputation for delays and obfuscation. A carefully designed planning instrumentality auspiced by state governments has long been sought by many planning reformers.
Waste collection and roads can be transferred to the states. Maternal and child health, kindergartens and child care can be transferred to either state or federal governments. None of these services require their management to be located in a separate and virtually exclusive jurisdiction separate from the states and the commonwealth.
3. Health and education should be transferred from the states to the Commonwealth.
The financing of health care is a federal responsibility, via insurance and public funding – ours is a hybrid public-private health system and it should remain so. The transfer of health to the Commonwealth would mean that individuals, health insurers and the Commonwealth would continue to purchase services run by hospitals and community health services that are currently run by the states – these providers are already independently governed and managed. It is but a small step for them to become fully self-governing – which for many would be a return to the founding ethos.
The financing of education is also a federal responsibility, via public funding of both public and private schools. Our hybrid public-private school system should also continue into the future. Schools currently run by the states have become more independent of direct government administration in recent decades, and most are now independently governed and managed. Their funding comes from the Commonwealth, and, if they are independent schools, from parental fees.
The transfer of health and education to the Commonwealth would mean removing one tier – the states – from the churn of public money from taxpayers to the Commonwealth to the states to the purchasers of services. At the same time, this shift could assist hospitals and schools to evolve as independent entities that are more accountable to their consumers and parents, and less like operational outposts of distant colonial bureaucracies.
4. This transfer would reduce the size and scope of state governments dramatically. During this transition, we propose that all other functions of state governments (apart from health and education) remain in place. To match this reduction in size and scope of state governments, the number of state Members of Parliament should be cut by 50%.
5. The financial implications of these shifts are significant but are manageable without major disruption. Local government rates would be radically reduced, and should be capped at $100 for an average household. Savings to state governments from the removal of duplication in health and education should enable them to absorb the addition of local government service delivery functions in roads and rubbish.
6. The authors of the Constitution for the Commonwealth of Australia made specific provision for the formation of ‘new states’. In North Queensland, Central Queensland, the Riverina and New England, citizens’ movements for new states have existed continuously throughout the last 130 years. In parts of Australia where there is a popular desire for greater regional autonomy and decision-making, there is no reason why the current provisions in the Constitution for recognition of new states cannot be enacted in the 21st century.
The Riverina new state proposal is available at www.theriverinastate.com.au/
7. The writers of the Constitution also made provision for the inclusion into the Commonwealth of Australia of Pacific Island states. In part, the authors had New Zealand in mind, but not exclusively.
In 2020, many of the small micro-states in the Pacific face major security and economic challenges. China is cultivating a military presence in many of these states, and is sowing financial dependency through loans and investments in the region. This is a direct security concern for Australia.
At the same time, major internal security and governance challenges persist amongst the Pacific states. Australia administered Papua Guinea from 1919 to 1975 when it became independent. A wave of mid-20th century nationalism in developing countries produced a rush to independence which in some cases was premature, and has led to deep disappointment in the outcomes that have accompanied independence.
In this context, our Federation of Australian states may yet take a new turn. If the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and/or Papua New Guinea were to seek participation in our Commonwealth as ‘states’, either for a limited period (such as 99 years in the case of Hong Kong) or for an unlimited period, who is to say that this would not be mutually beneficial in ways that perhaps only the writers of our Constitution anticipated.
The United Kingdom is indeed a working model of such arrangements – Wales and Scotland are nations, they field their own sporting teams in international competition, they nurture and present their own cultures to the world, but for security and economic reasons, they are part of a union.