What is wrong, and why we can’t seem to fix it

Throughout most of my life I have been living under conservative governments, and the nicest way I can find to describe political conservatism is to say that it embodies the popular phrase ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. However, as we all know there are many things wrong at present, and they need fixing. No amount of ignoring them will make them go away. This blog is about those awkward facts of world that won’t go away and which political conservatism won’t make go away either.

What I’m going to aim to do is post a blog once a week, on a Friday, so you can digest it over the weekend. The next week’s blog will either be the next in my series, or a discussion of issues that have arisen from the comments.

I’m going to have a very strict comments policy, comment will only be accepted if they are intelligent and polite contributions to discussion around the topic of the post. Everything else will be moderated.

If you find a blog here sympathetic, you might consider reading the blogs from the beginning, as they are supposed to be a more or less continuous argument.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Government 1: Getting Rid of the States

I take it that most potential readers of this blog would agree with the proposition that politics in Australia at present are utterly corrupt. This corruption stems in my view from two sources:

  1. A beholdenness on the part of politicians to vested interests of various kinds. This is predominantly to business interests as they have the deepest pockets, but it also encompasses undue regard for all ‘professional’ groups and other lobbyists. This is ‘stakeholder society’ trumpeted by Tony Blair in the late 1990s. Under an older and more sober view this would simply be regarded as corruptly listening to factional interests and selling out the only stakeholder that governments should consider—Australian citizens.
  2. An unhealthy regard for opinion polls, focus groups and other manifestations of temporary views, and a willingness to pander to every unsavoury view if it can be seen to provide temporary advantage. A couple of generations ago politicians used to stand up and say ‘I believe that this is the direction the country should head in. To go this way will be difficult and expensive. I ask you each to make the sacrifices that will be necessary to achieve this worthy goal’. Nowadays this speech would run ‘I have no vision whatsoever for the country. Here is a tax cut. Please allow me to agree with whatever mistaken belief or prejudice is uppermost in your minds at the moment.’

The problem with this corruption is that it robs politics of any ability to respond to developing events, to consider new facts and to develop new strategies to move on. It is unquestionably the case that Australia in 50 years time will resemble not at all the Australia of our time, but will be entirely different. How difficult it will be to move through necessary changes into the future will depend on how responsive politics can be.

The usual explanation of this state of affairs is that we have poor politicians and we need to elect better ones, we need to rejuvenate Australian political parties so that politicians can better reflect the community.

I do not believe that this is true, I believe that politicians do currently reflect the community: lazy, uninformed and unimaginative. I think that a reform in Australia’s government systems must occur before a better class of politician can emerge as the present system tends to corrupt, or foil the best efforts of, even the best politicians. T

Next week I will talk about a possible form of proportional representation (PR) that rescues PR from the dreaded ‘party lists’ and later I will go on to explain how I think that society can be jolted out of its complacency by the adoption of citizens’ democracy widely. For today, however, I want to talk about getting rid of the states.

Various figures have been bandied around as to how much money Australia could save by getting rid of the States (‘shedding a tier’!). Sums of up to $50 billion dollars a year have been mentioned. I believe that even if the idea was revenue neutral it would still be worth doing rather than continuing to live with the ignominy of these contemptible entities.

My reasons for recommending the removal of the middle tier of government in Australia include:

  1. States are the principal offenders for corruption: because most of the local decisions such as planning are at the state level, this is where most of the corruption occurs. The late unlamented NSW Labor Government was widely seen as in the pocket of developers. I suspect that people expecting this situation to change under the new NSW government will be disappointed.
  2. States are basically the ‘capital cities’ tyrannising over large areas—when people complain about ‘Canberra’ interfering in their lives, they usually mean the state government. NSW politics is basically Sydney politics—I once heard a news report describe Bathurst as ‘in the State’s west’ (sic). There is no earthly reason why Perth should rule the Kimberley or the Pilbara. States are too small and revenue poor to be effective and too big to be local. &c &c
  3. As is well known, there is duplication of administration in states that should be national (why do we need eight police forces, eight vehicle licensing authorities? &c). The different legal systems in the states make for great inefficiencies.
  4. The states are for ever tussling with the Commonwealth, cost-shifting, playing blame games, failing to coordinate their activities with other states, and the fact that the Commonwealth raises most of the revenue and then passes it to the states to spend is ludicrous.
  5. States are meaningless colonial relics, any nation state or subdivision of a nation state which has straight lines for borders obviously has no ecological or cultural reason for existing. As most Australians live in the ‘capital cities’ then it probably seems natural to them that there is a parliament building with a flag outside it in the CBD, but this is just an accident of history, and if the large cities of Australia were, instead, the seats of regional governments much smaller than the current states, everyone would get used to this fact very soon.
  6. There is not enough cultural different between the parts of Australia to justify subdivisions with such control over important policy areas. However, there are ecological differences between the different parts of the country, and these should be reflected in the regional government structures.

Local government as it exists at the moment is even more of a joke than state government.

In place of the State and local governments I propose to have expanded regional government (RG) areas that correspond to eco-regions within Australia. The idea of using the cultural areas as depicted on the map of Aboriginal Australian groups prepared for the Encyclopedia of Aboriginal Australia, (a work edited by David Horton in 1996), as the basis for these eco-regions occurred to me a little while ago. Then David reminded me he had already dilated on this idea himself!

Anyway my take on this would be to have the following local governments

Administrative Centre
South-West RG
Region sw of a line from Geraldton to Albany
Pilbara RG
Horton’s North-west
Kimberley RG
Horton’s Kimberley
Top End RG
Horton’s North, Arnhem and Fitzmaurice
Spencer Gulf RG
Horton’s Spencer
Lake Eyre Basin RG
Horton’s Eyre
Carpentaria RG
Horton’s Gulf and West Cape
Desert RG
The area bounded by the above 7 RGs
Alice Springs
Torres Strait RG

North Tropics RG
Horton’s East Cape and Rainforest
Capricornia RG
Horton’s North-east minus the Brisbane area
Eastern RG
Hervey Bay to Grafton inland to the Divide
New England RG
Glen Innes to Newcastle
South-Eastern RG
Lake Macquarie to Wollongong and inland to the Divide
South Coast RG Wollongong to Eden
Bass Strait RG
Eden to Portland
Murray Darling Basin RG


It will be seen that the only current state retained here is Tasmania, which I reckon is a reasonable unit. The rest of the states in this list have been broken up and their parts distributed into eco-regions. All the ‘capital cities’ have had their area of government curtailed and restricted to an eco-region around them. Canberra should be part of the Murray Darling Basin RG, but not its administrative centre.

Of course it would be very difficult to remove the states from the Australian system of government as they are (unfortunately) embedded in the Constitution. However this fact shouldn’t prevent efforts to be made in this direction. When most people say ‘it’s very difficult’ they really mean ‘we shouldn’t do it’; when I hear ‘it’s very difficult’, I think ‘Ok, let’s start doing something straightaway’.

I have no idea how we could go about getting rid of the states. My best guess would be for the Commonwealth to progressively starve the states of funds (though unfortunately certain payments to the states are mandated in the Constitution), which would mean over time the states would hand their responsibilities to the Commonwealth. I would love to see dramatic scenes where Commonwealth officials enter state parliaments, ritually deface the state flag and break the speaker’s mace, but it’s more likely the states will eventually expire with a whimper to universal apathy.

Next Week: Government 2: Proportional Representation

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