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Conflict and co-operative federalism

By Richard Allsop - posted Monday, 17 March 2008

Federal systems work best when there are clear delineations of responsibilities between the different tiers of government. Unfortunately, in 21st century Australia they seem to be becoming more and more blurred.

In the not too distant past in Australia, a citizen with a gripe about a state government policy would lobby the government to change the policy or, failing that, to change the government. Now it seems that the instinctive response in almost any policy area is to forget those two actions and instead call for the federal government to intervene.

While for many decades there had been an increasing Commonwealth role in many areas of traditional state responsibility, this trend certainly speeded up under the Howard Government. Thus far, there are no indications that it will slow under the Rudd Government.


At least one influential labour figure sees the Howard Government’s centralism as having presented Labor with a gift. In the aftermath of the election, former ACTU Secretary, Bill Kelty, observed:

There will be one lasting contribution of the Coalition government and that is to provide unambiguous national power in dealing with the key issues of water, industrial relations, indigenous health and ultimately, public hospitals. Future governments can now use that power constructively and consensually.

It is easy to see why Kelty would think like this. John Howard was unapologetic about the federal government taking action when he believed it was required, commenting that he had “little time for state parochialism”. The trouble was that in many areas the issue was not state parochialism, but state responsibility.

It is true that the states and territories squandered large chunks of the GST revenue through big spending on public service wages and recurrent programs, while neglecting to invest properly in renewing infrastructure. As critics pointed out the failings of State Labor Governments, the Federal Coalition decided not to leave it to their state colleagues to build a case for a change of state government, but instead decided to directly intervene.

The trend towards opportunistic intervention in state issues (“opportunistic federalism” as it has been dubbed) grew apace, perhaps exhibited at its worst in last year’s Commonwealth takeover of the Mersey Hospital in Devonport. While the people of Devonport were understandably upset by the loss of services at the local hospital, it certainly appears as if the decision of the Tasmanian Government to rationalise health services in north western Tasmania was a logical one, given the availability of medical professionals and funds.

Around the nation, at a local level, federal MPs increasingly focused on local problems in areas of state responsibility such as schools and policing. Huge increases in MPs’ printing and postage budgets exacerbated this tendency. It was realised that specific local material in newsletters and brochures was more likely to be read than general policy information, so the simple need for local content often took precedence over respect for constitutional boundaries between tiers of government.


By its piecemeal involvement in a variety of state issues, the Howard Government achieved the counterproductive outcome of making people feel that the Commonwealth was equally culpable for the failings of the state governments in areas like hospitals, roads and ports. This was backed up by research on the 2006 Queensland State Election which showed that a significant number of voters blamed the Federal Government for failing to fix the state’s hospitals apparently “believing that there are enough funds at a federal level to fix everything”. By the time last November’s federal election came around one commentator observed that “almost the entire election has been fought out on state government turf”.

After 100 days it is too early to be definitive about how the Rudd Government will impact on the Federation, however the signs are that it will follow the approach advocated by Kelty.

Anyone who believed that having all governments of the same political persuasion would solve the nation’s problems has already had the Victorian Government’s on-going refusal to sign up to the national water plan to add to the many historical examples of unco-operative federalism.

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About the Author

Richard Allsop is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs. He was Chief of Staff to the two Transport Ministers in the Kennett Government and has had a range of other roles in federal and state politics, as well as private sector experience. He has a Masters in History from Monash University and is currently undertaking his PhD. Richard has written on Australian political history for various publications and has also worked on the Nine Network's election night coverage of federal and state elections since 1993.

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