Senate debates

Tuesday, 25 March 2014


National Schools Constitutional Convention

8:47 pm

Photo of Dean SmithDean Smith (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise this evening to reflect on the communique of the 19th National Schools Constitutional Convention provided to the President of the Senate and presented to the Senate last week. The National Schools Constitutional Convention seeks to promote understanding and informed discussion amongst young Australians about the Australian Constitution and system of government. Its three main aims are to provide an opportunity for senior students to explore constitutional issues; to encourage those students who are informed and actively interested in the Australian system of government to pursue this interest; and to increase student awareness of key constitutional matters.

The specific purpose of the 19th national convention was to introduce and inform student delegates about the current allocation of legislative responsibilities in a number of international constitutions and to consider why these take the form that they do. Attention was given to discussing the listing of the Commonwealth powers that are defined in our national Constitution and students were asked to consider as a debating topic whether there should be a change to include water and health as Commonwealth powers.

The national convention this year was entitled 'Australian Federalism—States' Rights and National Priorities'. I am very confident the national convention was a wonderful opportunity to learn more about our nation's Constitution and to encourage students who are informed and actively interested in the Australian system of government with a very practical opportunity to increase their awareness of key constitutional issues. I congratulate the 15 Western Australian students who had the opportunity to travel to Canberra and participate in the national convention.

As the new government puts its mind to meeting its election commitment to present a white paper on federalism in its first term of government, it is timely to reflect on the virtues of Australian federalism. The evolution of the Australian Federation is rooted in a deep understanding of the need to limit government while ensuring it is used to preserve a free society. The structure of Australia's three-tier system of government is something that has been frequently revisited over the 112-year history of Australia's Federation. In times past, the debate often centred around which of the three levels—local, state and federal—was best placed to deliver services or take responsibility in particular areas.

More recently, however, the tone of the debate has ceased to be merely contemplative and has morphed into a determination by some to rid Australia of at least one tier of government. It now seems almost a matter of daily routine for there to be debate in one quarter or another about whether Australia really needs to have three levels of government. For adherents to classical liberalism, the reply to this question should be an unequivocal yes. The focus of the debate in Australia has tended to be on the role of the states. Abolition of state governments is a long-held desire of parties on the left of our politics. More recently, however, the idea seems to have found favour with some figures on the centre-right.

Yet the retention of Australia's three-tier system is essential. More than anything else, it guards against political tyranny. In examining any system of government or constitutional arrangement, classical liberals should concern themselves not with the exercise of power but with its limitation. In practical terms, in a country as geographically diverse as Australia, some division of power is also necessary as a bulwark against the implementation of poorly designed policies which may not be appropriate for particular locations or populations, however well-intentioned their advocates may be. Moreover, Australia's present three-tier system of government promotes democratic accountability. Were the states to be abolished, it would actually weaken the ability of citizens to hold decision makers to account for their failures, as their voices would be drowned out by the much larger national chorus.

By any standard, Australia's Federation has proven remarkably durable and united since it came into being on 1 January 1901. This is all the more remarkable when one considers that, in the main, Australians were reticent about Federation. Those liberals who were most influential in the movement—Alfred Deakin, George Reid and the fledgling nation's first Prime Minister, Edmund Barton—are today remembered for their eloquent arguments in support of Federation. Less well remembered, perhaps, is that every ounce of their energetic advocacy was needed to overcome some trenchant opposition to the proposal. As Sir Robert Menzies noted, 'We federated with a great deal of reluctance—in other words, the disjunctive forces, the centrifugal forces, were in fact at their strongest just before the argument about Federation began.' A shared concern among supporters and opponents alike was the need to impose constraints upon the powers of any new federal government, particularly to guard against any attempts to impose the will of the central government upon state governments. This concern was naturally more fervent among the less populous states.

Little appreciated, however, is the biblical influence that the work of James Bryce and his book The American Commonwealth had on the delegates at the constitutional conventions of the 1890s. The book focuses on the benefits of sharing powers between a federal government and the states. The book was:

… quoted or referred to more than any other single work; never criticised, it was regarded with the same awe, mingled with reverence, as the Bible would have been in an assembly of churchmen.

Liberalism is based upon a suspicion of government power. From a classical liberal perspective, the best form of government is one that has its powers checked and diffused among several bodies. To abolish the states would represent a fundamental subversion of the intentions of those who drafted Australia's Constitution.

When it comes to deciding which level of government should do what, classical liberal theory matches well with what practical experience in Australia has routinely demonstrated. Liberalism holds with it subsidiarity, the view that decisions are best made at the level most proximate to those upon whom the decision will most impact. Common sense would dictate that this is the most desirable approach. Just as it makes little sense for local government to involve itself in defence policy, so too should adherents to classical liberalism be suspicious of attempts by the national government to involve itself in those matters that are the preserve of state and municipal governments. To put it simply, each level of government should do those things for which it is best equipped, both in terms of proximity and resources.

The Commonwealth should focus primarily on those tasks set out in section 51 of the Australian Constitution, which, because of their magnitude, cost and historical legacy, require a national response. This includes matters such as foreign affairs, defence, the payment of pensions and citizenship. Also included are matters which, by definition, cross state boundaries, including banking and communications.

The states should focus on those matters not specifically listed in section 51 and which, due to economies of scale, cannot be reliably managed by local government authorities. Primarily, this means the provision of public services in health, education, the maintenance of law and order, and utilities and transport.

The primary task of local government should be to provide those services essential to the day-to-day functioning of the communities they serve. This includes the maintenance of local infrastructure, waste management and the maintenance of public recreational spaces. The perfect future scenario is one where each tier of government creates its own competitive tension, both intrajurisdictional and interjurisdictional, in a manner that reduces economic costs while increasing personal liberties.

Ongoing public dissatisfaction with service delivery in key policy areas over recent decades seems, on the face of it, to have engendered a public sentiment that favours Commonwealth intervention, or even takeovers, in areas that have previously been the primary responsibilities of state governments. Health and education are the two most obvious examples but, more recently, the Commonwealth has sought to involve itself in a range of other areas. The Commonwealth's efforts to exert influence in these areas are generally presented as an attempt to simplify, harmonise or end the blame game.

However well meaning the advocates of Commonwealth takeovers may be, their fervour cannot disguise the fact that there is simply no evidence that the Commonwealth government is any better at service delivery than the state governments it seeks to usurp. The provision of crucial services in areas like health and education is acknowledged by all to be a complex business, necessarily involving structures to manage the flow of information, identify problems and implement solutions. It is difficult enough to undertake this work at a state level and there is no compelling evidence to suggest that patients would be healthier or that students would obtain better results if all their services were directed from Canberra. Nor can anyone say with confidence that services would be delivered more efficiently by the Commonwealth than the states. Historic experience in Australia has repeatedly demonstrated that the Commonwealth is actually very bad at service delivery.

Classical liberal theory holds that, if political power is to be granted to individuals or institutions, it must be accompanied by a system of checks and balances to guard against abuse of that power. To abolish one or more of Australia's three levels of government would run counter to that view. In particular, were state governments to be abolished, it would permit a constitutionally emboldened federal government to impose its will on communities very distant from it and, in some cases, strongly opposed to it.