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Good government and federalism

By Don Aitkin - posted Tuesday, 6 August 2019

This essay rises from musing about British PM Boris Johnson, Brexit and the European Union, and of course musing about our own situation in Australia. Since human beings came to settle in villages, grow crops and domesticate animals there have been two competing forces affecting 'power'. The first, and certainly the earliest, was that power resided in the headman, the warrior-chief, and then the king. The second, and the weaker, was that the people of the village were able to make their own decisions, perhaps with the guidance of the headman or the elders, but they could do it by themselves.

Over the past ten thousand years these forces have wrestled with each other. Nation-states were formed, more or less successfully, through the more powerful of the barons coercing neighbouring barons to accept his over-lordship, through force, inter-marriage, treaties, fear of even more powerful enemies outside, and so on. This is the story of Britain, France, and in the 19thcentury, Germany. As Europe became more powerful relative to much of the rest of the world there developed colonies, 'settler societies', which formed their own rules in new parts of the planet. Several of them, notably the USA, Canada and Australia decided to 'federate', apportioning some powers to the centre and others to the colonies that had agreed to join together.

There had been federations before. Switzerland was one, formed in part to maintain separate languages in separate regions of its mountainous terrain. The division of powers was relatively simple: the centre dealt with defence and foreign affairs that affected everyone, a common currency, common basic laws, and dealing with disputes between parts of the new nation and between parts and the centre. The rest, more or less, was a matter for the constituent parts of the nation: schooling, roads, agriculture and industry, waterways and the like.


As time passed there grew a new sense of nationalism, and of course that was fostered by the centre. In the 20thcentury technological advances greatly increased the power of the centre in every nation, partly because these advances, like the telephone, railways, air travel, television, and more recently the Internet, computing and the smart phone, brought all residents of the nation closer together, and lessened the real power of the governments of the states or provinces. At the end of the 20thcentury a supra-national body, the United Nations and its many agencies, was doing its best to be the centre, directing recommendations to all the member states, some of whom took them seriously, while others did their best to ignore them, or at least those recommendations that didn't suit them.

During wars there is a tendency to go national. In Australia during the war a proposal was floated for the abolition of the States and their replacement by forty or so regional councils. It didn't get very far: if there were ever a referendum that would be decisively defeated everywhere, it would have been that one. Australia has quite strong localism, despite all the communications advances. Even seventy years after Federation a third of Western Australians and a quarter of Tasmanians thought of themselves in terms of their State rather than of their nation. A third of all respondents placed their State second if it was not their first choice (Stability and Change in Australian Politics, second edition, page 183). Any change to local government boundaries will produce expressions of fury and lament from locals and local bodies: they don't want to be tied up in a bigger council with people a long way away. The last sentence is still true; I'm not sure about the importance of State location as an identifier in 2019.

The growing wealth of the 20thcentury, and the way in which the centre appropriated taxation revenue in most if not all federations has tipped the balance decisively in favour of the centre. In our own country, no matter where the MPs and Senators come from, very few of them keep any kind of states' rights perspective once they are in the Federal Parliament. John Howard, becoming PM, said firmly to his Departmental Secretary, 'Never forget, I am not a states' rights person!' It is hard to distinguish Labor from the Coalition in terms of their attitude to Australia and the States: Australia is the game, and the States are an inconvenience. The States do their best to maintain a kind of independence, but when large sums of money are involved, there is only the Commonwealth to go to, and it usually strikes a hard bargain, unless there is an election coming quickly. The Council Of Australian Governments (COAG) sounds sort of Federal, but in practice can seem a device for allowing the Commonwealth to persuade, cajole and bluster the States to see things its own way.

And what is government for, anyway? To maintain order, and allow people to get on with their lives in the most peaceful and productive way - that would be my short summary. Of course, implementing such a broad brief would take us into all sort of policies. For example, our Constitution makes clear that Tasmanians are to be treated like everyone else, with respect to Commonwealth policies. That was a necessary condition if Tasmania was to be in the new Federation rather than outside it. All those outside the island State subsidise those who live there. There is no such provision in the Canadian Constitution, and the quality of services can vary markedly between the provinces.

Back to the EU, which might have been more successful as a Federation, allowing member nations to do all sorts of things consistent with their history and culture. Brexit might not have occurred, or need to have occurred. After all, the United Kingdom had allowed Scotland and Wales to develop quasi parliaments, after some centuries where such local authority had been expressly forbidden. Too much control from the centre finally doesn't work, because the nuances at the local level often have no meaning at the centre, and the lack of understanding will lead to bad decisions, and thus to frustration.

So I am firmly in the Federal camp, and unlikely to shift from it. It is not perfect, but it is to me plainly better than the unitary state. A good government to me is a minimalist, incremental government. It does not have grand visions or plans unless they quite powerfully come from below and are designed in a inclusive fashion. In fact, the problem is that parliaments are there to make laws. What they might do best is to reduce the laws we already have, which exist in their thousands. But that is much more boring than designing new laws, alas.

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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, Hugh Flavus, Knight was published in 2020.

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