What happens when State and Federal Governments fight

While I was doing a bit of random research the other day, I started seeing a patterns of disagreement between the State Government and the Federal Government.  It’s probably not something that has been thought about too often.  Actually, I can’t find a detailed analysis of it anywhere. I did find an article about Federalism in Australia vs. the Unity system in the UK.  Just as a quick refresher: In a country running with a federal system, the power of the State and the National governments are constitutionally divided – i.e. one is not the boss of the other!  Oh and they look after different things – the Federal govt deals mainly with tax, immigration, law and justice and the states look after education, health…etc.  The main leverage the Federal Govt has is that it control the budget and decides how much money to give the states for their stuff.  There’s pros and cons to the system.  Some say a federal system provides competition between the states and as a result more choice for people in terms of where to live, or get a job…etc – and more choice = better freedom (according to the proponents of the system).  On the other hand it makes for a bloated bureaucracy and the potential for serious communication breakdown…not to mention the fact that most people don’t actually get the difference anyway.

So anyway, back to this issue of states arguing with federal government…most of the articles I could find suggested these disagreements amounted to “healthy debate” based around issues whenever federal government sticks its nose into State based business and issues (like health and education and local government).  I’d like to suggest something different…

For instance, NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell and WA Premier Colin Barnett vs. Julia Gillard on the proposed changes to the constitution allowing the federal government to give funding directly to local governments without having to go via the state.  Another example: QLD Premier Campbell Newman vs. Julia Gillard on the proposed Gonski reforms.  Now, at first glace, you could put this down to the fact that both these issues were about Federal verses State control.

English: Prime Minister of Australia Julia Gil...

English: Prime Minister of Australia Julia Gillard (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Yes these are both examples of areas where federal government is trying to control more of what is within the State’s remit – but you’ll also notice that in both cases, The Gillard Federal Govt was a Labor government, and each of the Premiers disagreeing were Liberal/Coalition. And what of the other states?  Why was it that in the only Barry and Colin that seemed to disagree with the then Federal Government with the local govt reforms?  Well, because every single other State Premier was Labor.

So that got me thinking a bit more…how deeply does a divide in party focus or values between State and Federal Governments affect the ability to pass legislation? So I put together a list of every Prime Minister since 1901 and then put it against every single State Premier and their respective party.  You can download it here.

Findings – Times of Communication Struggle

1.  In 1975, Gough Witlam’s first and only term with Labor in Federal govt, almost other major state was under a Liberal government and in his final year, WA went back to the Liberals too.

2.  Between 1993 and 1995 during Paul Keating’s last term, he also had to deal with all-liberal party states except for QLD.

3.  Between 2002-2007, the Howard governments last terms – every single Australian state was controlled by a Labor government, while Liberals (John Howard) were in federal government.

4.  Julia Gillard struggled with a complete split in governance of the states, in 2011 when after years of Labor state government, both NSW and VIC voted for a Liberal Party govt, and this worsened in 2012 when QLD joined the crowd.  Joining WA who were had voted the Liberals in back in  2009 – now every major, powerful state was under Liberal control.

English: Portrait of Sir Robert Gordon Menzies...

Menzies

So it seems that in times when there the Federal Govt is working against states governed by a different party…they’re usually  headed for their final term.  Which causes which (if at all)…I’m not sure.  The only exception to this pattern is Robert Menzies – the guy had staying power, through a time when the states were fairly evenly divided in terms of party governance.

Findings – Times of Unity

1.  1927 – Labor Prime Minister Stanley Bruce’s last year in government provided complete governance unity across federal and state.  However, in 1927…I’m not sure how much that would have mattered given media access, transport…etc.

2.  1932 – Liberal Prime Minister Joseph Lyons’ first year enjoyed almost complete Liberal control of Federal and State affairs (excluding SA)

3.  1946 and 1947 – Labor Prime Minister Joseph Chifley got the same in reverse – all Labor control of Federal and States (excluding SA)

4.  1969 and 1970 – Liberal Prime Minister Grey Gorton had party unity across every single state for two years (before that 1965-1970 enjoyed fairly majority control under Harold Holt and John McEwan)

5.  1976 to 1981 – Malcolm Fraser had a pretty good run with major states (minus TAS and  SA) under Liberal party control.  In 1982, every state was under Liberal governance.

6.  2008 – Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd got a dream Labor scenario.  With one of the highest popularity votes AND state unity – imagine what he could have done if he hadn’t caused all that internal disunity!  They could have been an absolute force to reckon with.  Between 2009 and 2010, there was more of the same.

Now I’d need to look at each of those times more carefully to find out whether relatively speaking there was much more agreement and it was easier to get legislation in those years, while harder in those others – but that would be my hypothesis.  Also, we’d need to consider the make up of the senate in any one year to be completely sure of any results.

I think with a bit more study, we’d probably find that the Australian version of the Federal system of internal governance actually undermines the unity of the entire governance process.  At the very least, it must create massive miscommunication issues where in the majority of cases over the past 112 years, party governance is not aligned across state and government levels.  For instance, in sharing information between state and government – there becomes a massive risk of silos that, unlike the promotion of competition BETWEEN states, promotes national disunity between states and government.

I wonder how this effects people’s experience of local vs. national media as well?  For instance, if they live in a Liberal governed state, they’re likely to see a lot of Liberal messages locally, and be confused with any cross fire messages from the National government.   I do wonder if this happened particularly in NSW, VIC and QLD in the lead up to the 2013 election.  If I were Tony Abbott, and really smart, I would have created a whole strategy around playing on the creation of a divide between Labor and the states to build mass confusion for the people and help lead them in the thinking that the government of the day was disorganised.  Obviously if this was an orchestrated effort by the Coalition, its strategy was significantly helped by the fact that at the Federal Parliament level there were some pretty massive internal rifts within Labor already.

On another note, the old corporate world has already gone through the process of accepting that restructure is necessary to cost cutting: breaking down silo’s that exist between departments uncovers massive cost savings, improves communication and basically helps get things done faster and with less frustration for everyone.  Although the restructuring process takes years and humans within it get tossed around in constant change and instability until its done, once it is done, there is an exponentially great ability to be more agile and responsive to the needs of the community (which a modern nation expects from its leaders, because that is how they live the rest of their lives).

And of course the timing differences between state and federal elections don’t help the situation at all – in fact it leads to a gap between the will of the local people and that of government.  At least aligning these election dates within the same month would likely mean alignment based on any changing community views were properly represented from a state to national level.

So…I wonder how the Liberal Federal Government can have a conversation about cost cutting and budget management, without having a good hard think about whether we actually need to relook at the efficiency and effectiveness of our democratic system.  After all, this stuff was made up by people colonising a completely new country, taking bits and pieces from different government set ups (mostly from the US – EXCEPT for the federal system which came from the US and Canada). I mean, can you really just stuff bits and pieces into a constitution based on different ideas from around the world and expect to still work perfectly in 112 years?  I’m gonna hazard a guess: No.

Don’t get me wrong, lots of things about it are great – for instance, we have a mostly dreamy preferencing system (apart from being able to preference votes “above the line” in the Senate), but that doesn’t mean we can’t improve a whole lot.  It’s not like democracy as a system itself has been around for that long anyway, Monarchies are more tested through time.  And back in 1901 when our federal level democratic system of government was formed, corporate national/multinational capitalism, globalisation and communication were not the mega-influencers of the society as they are today.  The country existed in a completely different social, political and technological landscape.

The first step, I humbly propose, is a conversation.  A conversation between Local Government, the States, the Federal Government and the Australian people.  Because the only thing that can be guaranteed to happen in life is change.  Isn’t proactive engagement and discussion a better approach rather than waiting until the system fails us – just like our Senate voting system has in the 2013 elections?

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