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Australia - a broken Federation

By Charles Mollison - posted Tuesday, 18 September 2007

It is becoming apparent to more and more citizens that our Federation is broke. Unfortunately there is as yet little recognition of what is needed to fix it.

It is my opinion that first, we need to articulate what is currently wrong. We need to list, in order of importance, what we don’t like about our society and system of governance. Then we need to agree on desirable attributes of society and a system of governance. Having done that we should then design a new system to achieve those characteristics. Finally we will need to decide how to get from where we are now to where we would like to be.

What is wrong?

Not only are government services perceived as being delivered (badly) by remote, inaccessible and unresponsive bureaucrats and politicians, people feel disempowered because they cannot do anything about what is wrong. The only power people have is to throw out one of the major political parties and elect the other to government once every three years or so. Unfortunately, even when they exercise that power, all they get is more of the same.


People feel over-governed by the various levels of government and overwhelmed by complex and voluminous laws they have no hope of comprehending. We currently have nine parliaments making laws for our tiny population of 21 million people, and nine huge bureaucracies adding thousands of regulations. Doing business across state borders is a nightmare of different and often conflicting rules and regulations such that 92 per cent of businesses operate in only one state. The people who are unfortunate enough to live on and around state borders are bedeviled by different laws from one town, or even street, to the next.

The boundaries of our sub-national entities (the states) were inappropriately decided by a remote colonial government more than 100 years ago - arbitrary lines on a map. These boundaries might have been good enough when the population of Australia was concentrated in small settlements around Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, and so on, but today they are totally inappropriate.

Except perhaps during State of Origin matches, the states provide very little sense of community. They are divisive rather than uniting as far as nationalism is concerned and the state governments are remote, highly centralist, lack accountability and are inclined to be dictatorial.

Local governments (the third tier in our current system) are very much the poor relation. They have no constitutionally guaranteed place in our society, but are instead a plaything of state governments, who continue to burden them with more and more responsibilities but starve them of funds.

Defenders of the current Federalism say having various levels of government provides greater opportunity for innovation. In fact, what we get is competition between governments in Australia when what we want is co-operation; and a "blame game" instead of accountability.

The allocation of responsibilities between federal and state governments was wrong in 1901 and it becomes ever more inappropriate in the 21st century. This is apparent with crises in health, education, law enforcement, infrastructure and water. An inappropriate system of collecting and distributing taxes is the source of much blame shifting and lack of accountability.


The adversarial system entrenched in the primary institutions of our society (our parliaments and the courts) inhibits good governance and provides a very poor role model for the whole society.

The judiciary is perceived as being out of touch with society and devoted more to the letter of the law rather than to seeking out the truth and administering justice.

And to add insult to injury our head of state is the head of a foreign power

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About the Author

Charles S Mollison is the Chairman of The Foundation for National Renewal.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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