Reforming government in Australia

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REFORMING GOVERNMENT IN AUSTRALIA

(essay)

 

A striking feature of Paul Sheehans best selling book, Amongst the Barbarians, is that it is almost totally negative. It contains attacks on many groups, races and categories of people, but there are no positive proposals at all to address perceived problems, except the entirely abstract and rhetorical proposition that Australia should become an "ecological superpower", whatever that means.

Much the same applies to the Pauline Hanson political movement. All its proposals are entirely negative such things as increasing penalties for certain crimes, keeping out migrants and cutting expenditures on everybody from unwed mothers to Aboriginals.

Yet Australians are crying out for practical answers to a multitude of problems. One area in which there is an obvious crisis is the machinery of Australian government. Over the past couple of years we have seen an inconclusive Constitutional Convention discussing whether we should remain legally and constitutionally a British colony or become a republic, this was followed by the recent referendum in which the flawed model produced by the Constitutional Convention was defeated narrowly on the basis of very effective demagogic rhetoric by the monarchist side about the need for direct election of a president.

We have seen the Australian Capital Territory given an awkward kind of limited self government, and many thousands of electors in the territory voting for a No-Self-Government Party.

We have seen the parliament in Tasmania dramatically change the electoral system. We have seen the Kennett Government in Victoria close down local government, amalgamate many municipalities and then restore local government in much bigger areas, but with the undemocratic first-past-the-post electoral system.

We have now just seen the Howard government, in a piece of hopeful electoral opportunism, float an ill-thought-out proposition for immediate statehood for the Northern Territory without resolving the problem of federal and state division over Aboriginal land rights, or of the very small population base of the new state (much less than half of the population of Tasmania, and half the population of the ACT), or the problem of the number of Senate seats for the new state.

In a rather surprising, but heartening turn-up, the Northern Territory electorate threw out this undemocratic proposal in a referendum coinciding with the federal elections, and coincidentally threw out the Liberal member for the Northern Territory and replaced him with a Labor member.

 

Positive proposals needed

 

These things highlight the need for a serious investigation of the problems of Australian government and realistic proposals for how they might be resolved. If its worth writing about the problems of Australian society, politics and government, as Paul Sheehan, Bob Gould and others do, its for such would-be public intellectuals should put forward concrete proposals to resolve some of these problems.

In this spirit, therefore, after the better part of a lifetime in political activity, I advance for public discussion a set of proposals to resolve some of the problems of Australian government, in the current millenarian atmosphere.

A good place to start this discussion is with a little polemical book of 109 pages published recently by Rodney Hall, a prominent Australian poet who was, for three years, chairman of the Australia Council.

Halls book is called Abolish the States and is a vigorously presented argument for the abolition of both state governments and local municipal councils, replacing both with just one system of regional government. Hall claims this rearrangement would save many millions of dollars.

Just recently, prominent left-wing Labor federal front bencher Lindsay Tanner has also promoted the abolition of the states in his new book, Open Australia. Its worth pointing out about Tanner that he is sketching out a proposed new Labor policy in which he jettisons most of the traditional socialist propositions in favour of a number of rhetorical, general propositions that are hard to pin down to concrete government actions.

In my view, Tanner throws in the abolition of the states lightly, as a kind of left face to soften the impact of his general shift to the right. He is anything but stupid, and he must therefore realise that the abolition of the states is a proposition thats unlikely to be taken up by any Labor leadership as immediate practical politics. Therefore, I believe, this proposal is really left talk, thrown in rather cynically without any serious intention that it will ever become reality.

When I commenced my activity in the labour movement in the 1950s, support for abolishing the states was common in the labour movement and, without thinking about it much, I shared it myself. Ive come around to the view that its a mistaken solution to obvious problems, and I now have a different approach.

I would now oppose abolishing the States and local government and replacing three tiers of government by two, for the following reasons.

 

Objections to centralisation

 

Reason One: The Commonwealth government is extremely remote. Its very hard to get at. It has many useful functions, but its actually the arm of government most insulated from popular pressure. State and local governments are much less far away. If you look at Australian history since Federation, a big part of the real political life of the community continues to be expressed in the state parliaments and in local government. Its easier to get at politicians the closer you are to them, and the more directly the political structure relies on your vote. The idea of only having regional governments of a million or so population, combined with one big national bureaucracy in Canberra, terrifies me. How would you ever get close enough to your representatives to influence them at all in a political system like that?

Reason Two: The states arose in Australia from the original colonies for real geographical reasons. Distances between major regions in Australia are enormous. Anyone who has read the seminal works by Lewis Mumford and Jane Jacobs about the development of cities and the interaction between cities and their hinterlands in the evolution of civilisation, will appreciate the problems of government structure in a thinly settled country such as Australia. The Australian the colonies, and then the states, evolved around major port cities and their hinterlands, and the scope for real regions separated from major port cities in Australia is extremely limited. All Australian history underlines this. All the existing states evolved from central cities and their hinterlands and a real examination of Australian geography fairly quickly throws up real limiting factors on regional development, other than regional development focused on major ports.

If regional development is considered concretely, within the above framework, a critical and careful appraisal of the haphazard path of the development of states and regions, over the past 100 years, throws up the possibility of major improvements to the regional structure of the existing states, and the creation of several real new states, which is about the total of real regionalisation that is possible in Australia without vastly increasing the cost of government, or, on the other hand, creating such a centralised bureaucracy that ordinary people will never have any chance of influencing its decisions, let alone removing the people in power.

Specific proposals for regionalising the states

This proposal starts with a careful reorganisation of existing state boundaries, combined with the creation of four new states, including two new states incorporating New Zealand, to take into account real geographical, climatic and population realities, a number of which have, in fact, only become obvious since Federation.

Capricornia. The first of the 10 states would be a new state called Capricornia, the name taken from Xavier Herberts wonderful book about life in northern Australia. The state boundary would start at the bottom of the Eighty Mile Beach in Western Austalia, go across the top, so to speak, between Barrow Creek and Tennant Creek, then from a spot near Hatchers Creek, go down the Hay River to a point near the existing corner between South Australia and Queensland, then up to a line just north of Longreach, Aramac and Blair Athol, to the coast south of Mackay, and then out to sea, taking in the bottom of the end of the Barrier Reef and Cato Island.

The population of this area would be approximately 800,000, which is a good figure for a state to be viable. State capital functions could be divided between Darwin and Townsville, with perhaps the legislature in Darwin. This new state would satisfy the long-standing desire of the population of the Kimberleys, the northern part of the Territory and north Queensland, for their own state.

This kind of proposal was first made by Jock Nelson Jnr, at that time, the Labor member of Federal Parliament for the Northern Territory, at a conference of the the Australian Institute of Political Science on Northern Australia in the 1950s.

At this conference, Nelson pointed out that the attachment of Central Australia to the Northern Territory was a historical accident, and was not originally meant to be permanent, and that the rea