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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Why Australian’s should care about POLICIES not POLITICS

English: Photo of the entrance doors to the Au...

English: Photo of the entrance doors to the Australian House of Representatives, Parliament House. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So, it’s the day after tomorrow!  Some Australian’s are ecstatic, others are devastated.  As always, I’d like to to a look at exactly what a new government will mean for Australians.  Because being Prime Minister doesn’t give you the ability to just pop decisions through parliament as you choose.

For political noobs out there (as I was 6 months ago), here’s how it works.  This is what politicians spend more than half of their time actually doing:

– Someone comes up with an idea for a bill – i.e. an idea to change a law that governs Australia (it’s usually one of the parties but it can come from associations or other lobbyists)

– Generally the minister who is responsible for a particular portfolio presents a bill (although any member is allowed to).  The person gives notice that that idea is going to be presented at the next seating (basically a get together of parliament – i.e. a meeting!).  Obviously before they present it, they have to write a draft of the law.  For some reason I can’t find anywhere that actually details WHO does the writing…is it a lawyer, is it an analyst…who?  I don’t know…  ANYWAY…

– There are two “houses” of people who represent Australians.  Once’s called the Upper House/The Senate which is where the “Senators” live – once is called the Lower House – or as you may know it The House of Representatives.  The Lower House is the place where you vote in the government at the prime minister BUT it is not the house that actually has the final say.  The Senate does.  So to connect this all back to YOU:  on your voting card – the Green one was the one that you used to vote in people from your local area to the Lower House, and the white one,  you used to vote in representatives of your whole state to the Senate/Upper House.  Most people know the people on the Green card cos it’s their local area, but generally there’s less of an emotional connection to the white piece of paper – not to mention it takes an hour to fill in the preferences so most people just vote for a party instead of individuals and then let the party decide where to send the other preferences.  Often it’s much easier for smaller parties to get into the Senate than into the House of Reps.

– Alright so…off this bill (idea) goes – get’s presented generally first at the Lower House (House of Reps) although in some cases it can come the other way (unless its any money or tax related stuff).  And just to give you a sense of scale, government usually gets 200 of these proposals a year and about 80% of the actually end up becoming laws (or amendments to existing laws).  Anyway, at this first presenting of the bill, everyone gets a copy.

– No one chats about it or debates it this first time, it just gets presented.  Ministers and members of parliament then have time to go off, read it properly, do their own research, consult experts – basically do whatever they need to do to come to their own decision about whether they want to support it, reject it or amend bits and pieces of it.

– When they meet again, everyone votes in general on whether they want to run with it or not.  If it’s a yes, there’s a public enquiry into the bill and then an opportunity for members to discuss it all in detail, then there’s another vote and if it’s a goer – get gets passed on to the Senate.  The Senate then goes through basically the exact same process.  So they’re kind of like a second pair of eyes that I think tend to look at things from more of a national rather than local community perspective.

If there’s a bill introduced that fails to get through this WHOLE process TWICE, then the Prime Minister can ask the Governor General to “dissolve” both houses of parliament (hence the term “double dissolution”!) and then have another go at the election!

There have been 6 cases of double dissolutions since the federation was formed.  In one case, the bill was dropped, in 2 cases – the government who requested it in the first place lost their power and in 3 cases the the government “won”.  So that’s basically a 50/50 chance of getting back into power…let alone letting the bill pass through!  All in all, you’d need to be a betting man or woman to decide to call one I reckon.

So why would you want to call one?  Often this is if a party won because they won the majority in the House of Reps but didn’t get a majority in the Senate and so they’d call that a “Hostile Senate” – or basically a review panel that rejects the bills the are trying to pass.  BUT…I think to be strategic about it – you’d want to think about whether the bill you were trying to pass is actually worth the risk of a loss.

I think there’s two major reasons why the elected government loses at the time that they call a re-election:

1.  Usually it happens when they are trying to implement a key policy that they promised the people during an election campaign, which means it happens about 6 months after they get into government.  For the average citizen this isn’t enough time for that government to have proven itself or to have really made any positive changes based on their new governance.  It’s not long in government but its a long time in the real world – so people begin to have doubts about the governments ability to do its job and deliver what it promised those who voted for them.  Alternatively, the government has been in for a few elections, slowly losing ground and the re-election is called after 3 years, when perhaps the government hasn’t done as much as the people “thought” it would.

2.  They underestimate the gap between people’s  voting choice and their individual views on certain issues – so if the media reports (as they would) that the whole reelection is around a particular issue that perhaps is more contentious even between people who vote for a party, then people will be more attuned to that issue in particular in the reelection – i.e. they’ll vote almost based on whether or not they agree with that particular bill.  It’s a key psychological shift, but I reckon that’s what happens.

So with that in mind, it got me wondering – I know that yesterday by preferences, Liberals won by less than 6% (apparently that’s a lot in Australia) based on the votes of about 14 million Australians, and the biggest swing was toward independent parties – which showed that lots of Aussies just didn’t like either party but kind of didn’t get a choice since there wasn’t another big enough party in the contest.

So given that…it’s likely people probably disagree on a case by case basis with the actual policies being proposed, which also means there will be a more hostile senate because minor parties have been able to gain more seats than previously…which in turn means, there is more likely to be a scenario where bills get rejected by the Senate and that Tony Abbott will have the opportunity to ask the Governor General for a double dissolution.

And based on probably the biggest poll run in the country other than the election results themselves – run by the ABC, we can see what people’s views really are (regardless of how they actually voted).  Here they are, and my views on what will happen in parliament regardless of what the Australian people might personally prefer or think:

1.  Scrapping of the NBN:  Men are more likely to vote for liberal, but men are ALSO more likely to be interested in broadband/technology – which suggests to me that a dissolution called on the basis of the scrapping of NBN as currently planned could actually change the re-election results.
POTENTIAL OUTCOME VERDICT:  Good for Labor voters

2.  Gay marriage: has majority support amongst both sides of voters (liberal and labor).  This hasn’t really been a major focus of the campaign – apart from Rudd saying he’d allow his party a conscience vote on it.  I think both sides should listen to the Australian people on this and call a referendum.  It should not be up to a government to decide this if there is support amongst the whole community because it suggests that community’s overall views are not being properly represented.
POTENTIAL OUTCOME VERDICT:  Bad for all Australians

3.  Asylum seeker policies: are highly divisive and as a result of Labors shift toward a protectionist stance, close to half of all Labor supporters disagreed with Labor on this, but ALSO disagreed with Liberals.  The further people live from the city, the more likely they are to want to turn back boats and given 68% of Aussies live in cities this suggests a high level of disagreement with both parties on the issue.  I think that given Labor and Liberals have aligned themselves on this one – regardless of the Australian population – I’d say any bill on this would get through both the house of reps and the senate.  Which is a shame as again the majority views on the subject are not being properly represented. POTENTIAL OUTCOME VERDICT:  Bad for all Australians

4.  Mining tax:  The majority of Australians actually want this! (59%)  So it’s kind of hilarious that this is was what got Ruddster kicked off his perch in the first place (when he should have called his own double dissolution as he was at the height of his popularity at that time).  The liberals are calling for mining tax CUTS despite what the majority of Aussie’s want.  The issue here is, again the Senate – because minor parties are more able to gain seats and Queensland holds a lot of them and I’d say in both Queensland and WA where mining is most prominent, people are much more likely to be “for” mining tax cuts in their industry.  Also now that The Clive Palmer Party (who has is a Billionaire mining magnate) holds three seats in the Senate and could be the deciding party if it was a vote for the tax cuts with the Liberal party, he would likely have significant power in that vote.  So I think the tax cuts will definitely make it through the Senate.
POTENTIAL OUTCOME VERDICT:  Bad for all Australians and particularly Greens voters

5.  Legalised voluntary euthanasia:  A whopping 75% (plus 10%) neutral – want this.  This wasn’t even an agenda with either party – I think perhaps because while people might vote for it privately…its not exactly an upbeat thing to talk about.  But I do hope there is a bill brought in to assist the government agenda and help it reflect the views of the people.
POTENTIAL OUTCOME VERDICT:  Bad for all Australians if a bill is not presented and even worse if its not approved

6.  Car Industry Support: No one in SA actually cares.  They don’t want their own industry supported and Liberals agree.  So I think this one will be a no brainer as I don’t see the Greens supporting Labor against cutting the support in the Senate.
POTENTIAL OUTCOME VERDICT:  Good for Australians and particularly Greens

7.  Climate change/Carbon Tax:  This one is a really interesting one because overall 61% of Aussie’s think more should be done for the environment.  Also women and young people are more likely to agree with the statement vs male/older people.  (but it feels like most people don’t think the Carbon tax is it – although I’m not sure how many people actually understand it).   So the Liberals want to get rid of the carbon tax (in effect, a negative action against the environment) – and this is the one that Liberals believe is most likely to receive a hostile response in the Senate because it was a deal that both Labor and Greens had already agreed on (although who knows how the Palmer United Party would vote on this…given that they’re in the mining biz – they’d likely side with the Liberals on this…although given how Clive has been treated during the election campaign he may have other plans!).  So anyway, assuming it went through twice and they were unable to get it through, and a double dissolution was asked for – and assuming Australian’s voted in the way of “for or against the tax” rather than for or against the party AND assuming that by that time the Labor had a strong opposition leader who was polling well, then Labor could win back the election. Let’s not also forget that 25% (500k) young people didn’t enrol to vote before this election.  And the number of new young people eligible to vote will go up.  We could assume they would be prompted to enrol if there was an issue at stake they were more likely to care about and the difference of another 200-300k voters plus 50k people will die of old age in that time too who may have been likely to vote “against” the tax.

However if there was no leader and there was significant media surrounding the tax and confusing people into thinking having it is a negative, then Liberals could win back their seats AND win back more of the Senate. Jury is out on this one.  I think there would be a 50/50 chance here.

POTENTIAL OUTCOME VERDICT:  Good for Australians, Good for Labor and Greens voters OR Bad for all Australians

Then its important to look at the likelihood of success to win IF you take into account how strong the hold on the house of Reps or the Senate was at the time the dissolution + re-election was called by the government.

The 1975 Double Dissolution I wont count because it was a requirement for Malcolm Fraser to do this after the Governor General dismissed Whitlam so it was not related to any bill.

Joseph Cook Called Dissolution (1914)
– Liberals:
HoR: 38 Senate: 7
– Labor:
HoR: 37 Senate: 11
CALLED:
1.25 years after 1st election
BILL IN QUESTION (1): 
Abolish preferential employment for trade union members in the public service
OUTCOME:
Elected Party significantly defeated (it had been fairly neck and neck at the 1913 election anyway), bill not passed

Robert Menzies Called Dissolution (1951)
– Liberals: HoR: 74 Senate: 23
– Labor: HoR: 47 Senate: 19
CALLED: 1.5 years after 1st election
BILL IN QUESTION (1):  The creation of the Commonwealth bank board which opposition felt would mean private interests would influence bank decisions
OUTCOME: Elected Party returned and also won majority in senate, bill passed

Whitlam Govt Called Dissolution (1974)
– Liberals/NPA: HoR: 61 Senate: 46
– Labor: HoR: 66 Senate: 29
CALLED: 1 month after 1st election
BILL IN QUESTION (6):  Electoral bill (changing how electorates were divided) and same for Senate, Health insurance bill which would provide for creation of universal health insurance with Medibank – now known as medicare) and the establishment or a Petroleum and Minerals Authority.
OUTCOME: Elected Party returned but still no majority in the senate, bill did not pass

Fraser Govt Called Dissolution (1983)
– Liberals/Country Nationals: HoR: 74 Senate: 30
– Labor:  HoR: 51 Senate: 27
CALLED:  3 years after 3rd election
BILL IN QUESTION (12): A variety of Tax amendments, A social services amendment and amendments to tertiary education
OUTCOME: Elected Party lost, Challenger Won, bill did not pass

Hawke Govt Called Dissolution (1984)
– Liberals: HoR: 50 Senate: 16
– Labor: HoR: 75 Senate: 30
CALLED: 1 year after election
BILL IN QUESTION (1): Amalgamate all other govt ID systems to act against tax avoidance, health and welfare fraud
OUTCOME: Elected Party returned but still no majority in the senate, bill did not pass

Ok so…after all that research!!  Based on the above is seems that when a Double Dissolution has been called in the past:

A.  In 4 out of the 5 cases, the bill did not pass

B.  In 2 out of the 5 cases, the party who called the dissolution lost.  Where they did win, in 2 out of the 3 cases they still didn’t win majority in the senate, only in 1951 did the party win and get Senate majority.

C. Both Fraser and Menzies had the exact same majority number (74) in House of Reps and yet one lost, and the other won – which suggests deciding factors are about length of time in govt before the dissolution is called and also the issue itself.

So now lets look at this election IF we assume that a double dissolution is called on Carbon Tax within 6-12 months:

Tony Abbott Called Dissolution (est 2014)
– Liberals: HoR: 89 Senate: 33
– Labor: HoR: 57 Senate: 25 (+10 from greens on this issue) = 35
CALLED: 6-12 months after election
BILL IN QUESTION: Amendment to carbon tax to scrap whole program
PREDICTED OUTCOME: The situation is closest to the Fraser govt BUT, the timing is different.  I still say there’s a 50/50 chance of it going either way.  I think that if held 6-12 months after election, they would be reelected BUT they still wouldn’t get Senate majority.  If held in 3 years, they’d lose.