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Symbolic and practical governance

By Peter van Vliet - posted Tuesday, 25 March 2008

The Future Summit’s consideration of Australian Governance as one of ten critical areas raises the issue of both practical governance and symbolic governance.

Looking at the practical side Kevin Rudd, as a former senior State Government bureaucrat, is right across the need to better delineate the powers of the state and federal governments and so end the blame game. There is a growing recognition among many Australians not particularly well-versed in governance that this is a serious problem which requires attention. The never-ending crises in our complex hospital and health system, which are regularly splashed across our television screens, have made sure of that. We all know our federation needs fixing!

Having three levels of government all intimately involved in the delivery and funding of Home and Community Care (HACC) services in Victoria has always seemed odd to me. This is not to detract from the highly professional and dedicated people working within the Victorian HACC system. I just think the system would be much more accountable if we knew who ultimately was responsible for HACC. There might also be some administrative savings along the way. The often dreadful predicament of young Australians still to this day stuck in aged care facilities is also not helped by the cross-jurisdictional complexities of our aged care and disability service systems.


Our constitution was designed by our then nascent, somewhat suspicious, and very parochial colonies who were eager not to cede too much power to the new Commonwealth Government. While they recognised the need for better security, foreign affairs and trading arrangements through the new Commonwealth Government they weren’t keen to give up much else. While federalism has generally served our large continent well, even its strongest adherents would have to admit that after more than 100 years on the road it’s in need of a serious repair job.

The constitution was designed at a time when we many people considered themselves as, for example, Victorians before Australians. Now most of us would see the national interest as being considerably more important than that of our home states. Kids today often barrack for football teams from other states. The AFL can’t get state-of-origin off the ground again because no one is really that interested (accepting there remains a serious Queensland-New South Wales rivalry in rugby league).

Globalisation means Australians simply can’t afford to get involved in petty interstate parochialisms anymore. Victorians aren’t competing against Queenslanders so much these days. Rather, Australians are competing against myriad fast-developing economies and particularly to our north.

The challenge is to ensure an on-going role for the states and territories in delivering basic health, education and emergency services close to the ground, while clearly ceding responsibility to the Commonwealth around the bigger picture issues - like economic, industrial and financial regulation. This is a mature federalism that would recognise the state’s legitimate role in service delivery but give the Commonwealth Government ultimate power around bigger decisions that are in the national interest.

Our best and brightest in Canberra need to give this matter some serious attention. As our constitutional forebears did late last century maybe we need to consider a new s51 representing the changed realities of today’s policy areas and determining just who has ultimate responsibility for what. “Telegraphic services” just doesn’t have the same ring to it anymore!

If constitutional change is too hard, a high-level formal agreement between the State and Territories around heads of power arrangements with accompanying legislative transfers could be the way to go.


The potentially fortuitous situation of one party being in power across all state and federal jurisdictions offers us a rare opportunity for some serious reform in this area. Getting our 21st federal governance structures into a more mature space is a challenge that has to be addressed.

With regard to symbolic governance, now that the Rudd Government has moved our country forwards with the hugely important apology to Indigenous Australians what about the republic? As the lack of a formal apology to Indigenous Australians left Australia incomplete as a nation, so too does our now outdated status as a constitutional monarchy under the British Crown.

While democracy is mentioned as a topic under the governance heading, the republic is not. Our delegates should put republicanism in there anyway. You can’t have a discussion about Australian democracy without considering the “R” word.

The 2020 Summit represents the perfect opportunity to begin to formally reconsider the republican debate. Better still it can be done without the heavy protagonists from the republican and monarchists camps with their apocalyptic prophesies of untold disaster if their particular position isn’t met. One thousand of Australia’s best and brightest can have a mature, dispassionate discussion about how best we formalise our independence as a republic and stand on our own two feet.

Just as our nation can never be complete without healing the divisions between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, we cannot be a truly independent, mature country while we remain under the British Crown. 2020 could be just the place to rekindle this critical step forward.

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I would like to dedicate this article to a close friend of mine, John Russell, who died in Sydney on March 6, 2008. He was a hugely important but low-key Sydney intellectual who touched many people’s lives. He will be sadly missed.

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About the Author

Peter van Vliet is a senior public servant.

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