With the national government digging its selective anti-federalist paws into the Tasmanian health system it might be a good time to look at the nationalist (as opposed to federalist) structure of government. This usually takes the form of state abolition; where the states are seen as the unnecessary and duplicative level of government. This view has become increasing popular with all the federal parties in the Australian system and numerous advocacy groups. John August in an online opinion op-ed wrote:
Country residents in NSW joke that NSW means “Newcastle, Sydney and Wollongong” or “NSW Stops at Wagga”.
Often jokes are recognitions of reality, sometimes they are impressions. So how does it stack up?
The joke should probably be that NSW stands for Sydney, Sydney and Sydney. Then again the joke is probably recognition that Sydney’s economic, political and geographical influence is similar to Newcastle’s and Wollongong’s – effectively making a Greater Sydney Region which encompasses newie and the ‘gong. Not surprising as commuting does occur between Sydney-Newcastle and Sydney-Wollongong. The rise of the Central Coast is because of this phenomenon and the improved freeways between Sydney and Newcastle.
But in that graph the rest of NSW is nearly one third of the total population of NSW. So where is this population?
It is pretty spread out and even the regional centres are quite small being around the 35K-25K mark mostly. This probably just proves the NSW is geographically a big state and like most of Australia, the population is heavily urban.
State abolitionists argue that the solution to this urban concentration of population and political power is to remove the states and replace them with super-councils along the style of the Brisbane City Council [BCC]. John Howard remarked in a radio interview a couple of years ago (no link sorry, so will have to take my word for it):
“If we were starting Australia all over again, I wouldn’t support having the existing state structure,” he said. “I would actually support having a national government, and perhaps a series of regional governments having the power of, say, the Brisbane City Council.”
The BCC is quite large, as an be seen from the following graph.
Population wise it is larger than Tasmania, the ACT or the NT. South Australia is the nearest state and it has a population of 1.5 million while Western Australia has two million. If NSW was divided up into super-councils then Sydney would be four councils with maybe the northern council reaching into the Central Coast and Newcastle and the Southern one into Wollongong. This still leaves regional NSW with 1.9 million of population – what, two councils? three? four? five? Representation is still an issue in sparse areas.
It also doesn’t solve the problem that the BCC is as big as the smaller states. State Abolitionists appear to have a problem with just the big states; NSW, Victoria, Queensland and Western Australia.
The states which have dared to challenge federal power directly in Australian history have been NSW and WA. NSW and the federal government nearly went to civil war in the 1930s while WA passed a referendum to secede. More recently those two states have challenged the federal government over its GST; that is leveraged and collected by the national government; subject to a redistribution formula which is not one for one; and then pumped back to the states.
The problem for state abolitionists and the duplication of services argument is that it is the national government doing the duplication. The national government funding a Tasmanian Hospital when the local communities and state had done research on it and decided to close its intensive care unit is a good example of how local consensus was over-ridden by the coarseness of national policy. Australian federalism has been broken by the national government and its actions. I suspect if we could run a column of water through Samuel Griffiths’ grave and put a turbine to it we would be getting more kilowatts than the Snowy Scheme.
Federalism is a very good political and organisational technology. We have separation of powers between branches of government to balance power and put them into tension at the horizontal level of organisation. Federalism is a vertical form of the same technology.
Personally I like it when NSW and WA get belligerent to the national government as it puts the system in tension and balances out the negative of power flowing to the centre. However the vertical tax imbalance has broken federalism badly. The national government now does approximately 80% of all taxation. Half of the 2005 NSW budget came from the national government.
The vertical balance of powers between the states and national government has been broken as a deliberate policy by the national government over the last eighty years. Abolishing the states, especially the larger ones, and replacing them with smaller regional units is a continuation of that policy. All it would achieve is removing any barrier to the national government dictating policy and funding to the smaller political units.