A political pet peeve

Club Troppo is blessed with an abundance of constitutional nous. Ken Parish lectures in the subject at Charles Darwin, cam has extensively studied the topic from the perspective, and with the mental tools, of a software engineer. Myself I am a rabble-rouser.

I saw this posted in a comment fellow Terrible Trio site Larvatus Prodeo:

The States are no longer necessary. Theyre an expensive relic of the past. … Better services could be delivered by a combination of Commonwealth and local governments.

Please excuse me while I laugh to death. Better services? Delivered by the Commonwealth? By local government? Obviously this bloke has never a) tried to call someone inside siege-mentality Commonwealth departments like Immigration and Centrelink or b) actually paid any attention to the level of wasteful, stupid, vacuous inanity which takes place in every single council in Australia.

Not that the states are much better. But states attract more scrutiny. That matters. Federal politics gets the most attention from journos, then state politics, then US politics, then British politics, then politics in Obscuristan, with council and student politics vying for a distant last.

Government at all levels is rubbish, but local government is by far the worst. Remember: the smaller the government, the bigger the duddery.

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42 Responses to A political pet peeve

  1. Jc says:

    Jacques

    I actually don’t totally disagree about the uselessness of the states in our federal system. I think that LP guy is onto to something, although he doesn’t know what exactly. However I also agree with your point about the uselessness of the local governments.

    The current problem is that states are essentially the equivalent of permanent welfare recipients demonstrating exactly the same behavior patterns.

    1. Materially increase the number of states.
    2. Devolve taxing authority down to the state level.

    This would allow tax competition between the larger numbers of states and would also allow for regional differentiation.

  2. JC,
    The other option would be to return the income taxing power to the States (where it originally was) and fund the Feds out of the GST. This would solve the “welfare recipient” problem and make the States relevant again.
    It would also allow some proper competition and regional differentiation to build up between the States.
    The problem with the “more States” idea is where to put them? All of the current States are a capital city (sometimes an extended one) and their hinterland. For example, in Victoria do you make “Port Philip Bay” a State and then another one called “The Rest of Victoria”? WA would be a nightmare – “Perth” and “everywhere not Perth”. The imbalances in population between them all would make it (IMHO) unworkable.

  3. Aidan says:

    Is it possible for the states to request the income taxing power be returned to them?

  4. Jc says:

    Andrew

    I agree, most taxing ought to be returned to the states. However I also think there are too few of them and their size is plainly silly. The bloody regional boundaries don’t make sense. Fancy Darwin being the capital that takes the middle of the country. Queensland is another good example.

    “The problem with the more States idea is where to put them?”

    But why think within the current borders. Darwin could be the captial of the entire north end. Queensland could be split into several states. In victoria…. I could imagine several state capitals.

    I would do away with GST and let the states decide on their taxing mix.

    Mark Hill over at Catalaxy once suggested the Feds could easily fund themselves with a mix of land tax and mining royalities.

    There are huge regional differences within the present state structure.

    It would also allow for greater politcal freedoms in a sense as the regions have varying political slants.

    Such a system could also allow several of the failed states in the region into the federation.

  5. Jc says:

    Aidan

    I think I recall that there nothing to stop states currently from raising an income tax. I wouldn’t bet on it though.

  6. jc,
    “Such a system could also allow several of the failed states in the region into the federation.” This is an interesting idea and one I have long thought we should do. Simply letting the other nations in the south Pacific and Indian Oceans that, should they vote in a referendum to do so they may join Australia as a State or Territory would be a great way of extending Australian territory, relieving poverty and bringing political stability.
    If some of the nations do drown in the future this would also solve that problem.
    If it was done on a negotiated, no compulsion basis then I do not see a problem with it.

  7. gilmae says:

    I can’t remember if there is anything to stop the states raising an income tax from a legal pont of view. From a political point of view, my understanding is that if the Federal government disagrees and continues to lay it’s own taxes then the taxpayers are required to pay the feds first, and then the states. I imagine that would make a state income tax regime untenable. There were a couple of high court cases on the issue when the feds took over income tax. I have vague memories of someone here at Club Troppo mentioning them in a list of court decisions that changed federalism, along with Engineers and whatever the Workchoices decision was called.

  8. gilmae says:

    Who is the other member of the Terrible Trio, by the way?

  9. gilmae says:

    It was Ken Parish. About seven or eight paragraphs in.

  10. Jacques Chester says:

    I have vague memories of someone here at Club Troppo mentioning them in a list of court decisions that changed federalism, along with Engineers and whatever the Workchoices decision was called.

    Ken has canvassed the constitutional niceties in considerable detail over the years. Here’s a sample:
    http://clubtroppo.com.au/2006/11/14/reports-of-the-death-of-federalism-are-much-exaggerated/
    http://clubtroppo.com.au/2006/11/14/blogging-the-work-choices-decision/
    http://clubtroppo.com.au/2005/03/30/fing-federalism/

    The key decisions, in order, were:

    Engineers Case: Changed the entire method of Constitutional interpretation. Swept away implied immunities doctrine. Every clause in S 51 (establishing the powers of the Commonwealth) was to be read as widely as possible, in isolation, and as prior to the states.
    Uniform Tax Cases 1 & 2: Established that the Commonwealth could collect income tax and that this tax had to be paid before any state income tax. Massively amplified the financial power of the Commonwealth.
    Tasmanian Dam Case: Affirmed the doctrine in Engineers and extended it to the Foreign Affairs power. Effectively the Commonwealth may legislate outside of the list in S 51 if it passes laws meant to ratify a treaty on that topic.
    WorkChoices case: Extended the doctrine in Engineers to the Corporations power. Effectively the Commonwealth may legislate outside the list in S 51 if it can be shown to be related to Corporations.

  11. Jacques Chester says:

    Who is the other member of the Terrible Trio, by the way?

    Catallaxy Files, by my estimation. All three sites link to each other extensively and have a lot of commenters in common.

  12. Jc says:

    “If it was done on a negotiated, no compulsion basis then I do not see a problem with it.”

    Yes of course. However i don’t think it would work under the present welfare structure as the wealth disparities are too big and our present welfare system couldn’t cope.

  13. Paul Frijters says:

    I have noticed in this exchange, and more often at this site, that there is a tremendous degree of unhelpful negativity going on with respect to the efficiency and usefulness of the state. Do you really believe, Jacques, that life would be better if governments were abolished and if not, why these gratuitous statements about how ‘Government at all levels is rubbish’? Do any of the affirming commentators above seriously believe that private organisations are super-efficient and dont suffer from gross inefficiencies too (if so, they cant have home-internet because that comes with a lifetime-hassle guarantee)? And who in their right mind believes you can ‘just’ abolish states and thereby ‘solve’ welfare problems and the like overnight? The belief in quick-fixes (which smack of a highly ideological bent) to very complex issues is not very useful.

    I would venture the opposite opinion: governments are an integral part of our societies and our sociaties would descend into chaos without government. We could perhaps marginally improve the workings of our various layers of government, but not by much and only incrementally. Governments provide many useful services the population at large wants them to provide and our democratic system ensures that the corrupting effects of power are kept within acceptable boundaries. Sure, civil servants are no saints but the downright vilification they get here is undeserved.

    In terms of whether the States should be abolished, I think it matters increasingly less given the gradual centralisation following the tax dominance of the federal government.

  14. Jacques Chester says:

    Do you really believe, Jacques, that life would be better if governments were abolished and if not, why these gratuitous statements about how Government at all levels is rubbish?

    Paul;

    You are over-reading my remarks. Importantly you missed my core thesis that cutting the states out of the picture would things worse, not better, for Australians. In my time I have been an Anarcho-Capitalist, but lately (look at my Libertarian Musings category) I have become conservative in the process of how and whether that is achievable.

    I maintain that governments at all levels are rubbish because I am familiar with some of the dumps.

  15. Paul Frijters says:

    Jacques,
    “You are over-reading my remarks.”

    really? I’m no admirer of our local councils, but tell me how one would ‘over-read’ the blanket criticism in your statement ” wasteful, stupid, vacuous inanity which takes place in every single council in Australia “?

  16. Jacques Chester says:

    You can’t over-read it. It’s true. Find me a local council that isn’t a basket case and I might add it as a footnote.

  17. Jc says:

    “I have noticed in this exchange, and more often at this site, that there is a tremendous degree of unhelpful negativity going on with respect to the efficiency and usefulness of the state.”

    Well that’s a positive paul, because it may mean libertarian vitures are getting out.

    ——————

    Do you really believe, Jacques, that life would be better if governments were abolished and if not, why these gratuitous statements about how Government at all levels is rubbish?

    A lot of us actually do think that most government fucntion is rubbish, creates unacceptable churn and we would be far better if most of its functions were turned over to the private sector.

    ——————-

    Do any of the affirming commentators above seriously believe that private organisations are super-efficient and dont suffer from gross inefficiencies too (if so, they cant have home-internet because that comes with a lifetime-hassle guarantee)?

    No, but business can’t afford to be inefficent or customer unresponsive otherwise it will go broke. Governments don’t seem to have that receptor into their functionality..

    ——————–

    And who in their right mind believes you can just abolish states and thereby solve welfare problems and the like overnight? The belief in quick-fixes (which smack of a highly ideological bent) to very complex issues is not very useful.

    Not really the complexity of policy doesn’t speak to the complexity of the problems. Theose problems have with us since man walked on two feet to some degree or another.

    ——————-

    I would venture the opposite opinion: governments are an integral part of our societies and our sociaties would descend into chaos without government.

    To what degree?

    —————–

    We could perhaps marginally improve the workings of our various layers of government, but not by much and only incrementally.

    I really don’t think we can .

    —————-

    Governments provide many useful services the population at large wants them to provide and our democratic system ensures that the corrupting effects of power are kept within acceptable boundaries.

    So offer less power and there is less of a need for corrupt practices.

    ——————

    Sure, civil servants are no saints but the downright vilification they get here is undeserved.

    We could easily fucntion with 90% civil servants. I maintain that in the present circumtances they shoud not be allowed to vote as the conflict of interest is too big.

    ——————

    In terms of whether the States should be abolished, I think it matters increasingly less given the gradual centralisation following the tax dominance of the federal government.

    However centralization would make the problems bigger because power is more remote whch is why the states should take on a bigger portion of the revenue gathering.

  18. Ken Lovell says:

    Local councils do serve one useful purpose. They are living museums, preserving all the worst aspects of organisational design that the private sector abandoned years ago.

    I think my local council has more layers of management than Qantas or BHP-Billiton.

  19. Jason Soon says:

    governments are an integral part of our societies and our sociaties would descend into chaos without government

    If you’re talking about the core functions, namely hunting down and killing or incarcerating the predators within and without (i.e. defence and policing) then of course. These plus a few other things (arranging for roads to be built, insuring uninsurable events through things like disability support) are its core strengths. Once it strays beyond these things it generally stray beyond its competence.

  20. Jc says:

    Funny you should pick on two stocks which have magnificant management and have provided even for the grand children of the stockholders!

    If I were you ken, i would ask Jacques to kindly erase the two names. Or you may want to explain why you think they have performed so poorly. Alomst every analyst have a buy/hold rec on these two.

  21. Well said, Jacques.

    Anyone who’s had anything to with Centrelink will know the Federal government hardly exudes administrative competence.

    They’re going to get badly bitten by some of this stuff – let’s see them try to deal with staffing issues for the Mersey hospital for a start.

    And if people don’t like the states, well, we have a constitution and it provides for amendments – through referendum not through “aspirational nationalism”.

    Though I’d be interested in any opinions from constitutional lawyers as to whether the states could be abolished by referendum (not that I think such a proposal would have a snow flakes’ of passing).

  22. Jacques Chester says:

    Though Id be interested in any opinions from constitutional lawyers as to whether the states could be abolished by referendum (not that I think such a proposal would have a snow flakes of passing).

    The short answer is “yes, certainly”. The Constitution is utterly capable of self-modification.

    Longer version is: how? The brute way to do it is to simply write them out. This is, putting it mildly, dangerous. The more likely approach is to continue revolution within the form. Get the states to dissolve themselves into Commonwealth Territories, for example.

  23. That easy?

    You’d never get a majority of people voting by state though.

  24. gilmae says:

    Youd never get a majority of people voting by state though.

    And since you’d technically be reducing the representation of each State within federal parliament, you’d also need to get a majority in every State, or at least each State as you abolish it.

  25. Jacques Chester says:

    The first approach (modifying the Constitution) requires a majority overall and in each state, all at once. That’s a big ask.

    The latter approach allows states to be subsumed one at a time. Queensland here, Tassie there. Give it 50 years and you could pull it off.

    However I don’t see it happening. The NT has been desperately trying to turn itself into a state for decades. Why would you want to give up even that limited legislative independence?

  26. Brendan Halfweeg says:

    I like the idea of abolishing the states and stronger local government. I could imagine the concept of the city-state as well, with the major cities islanding themselves off from the rest of the state, which could then be broken up into regional local governments. Some may be vast in size, say like a government representing the Kimberley, some smaller like Gippsland. Decentralised taxation regimes would also provide competition between the local regional and city governments.

    I’d advocate giving the federal government no taxing power whatsoever, with each local government responsible for contributing a stipend to pay for Commonwealth services. Take away their financial clout and the move to centralization of power would end.

    JC, I wholeheartedly disagree with the federal government receiving the mining royalties that now go to the states. If anything these should be integrated into the property rights of the landholders. Improved property rights will lead to more efficient markets.

    I can’t really see the point in trying to make state and federal governments more efficient. More efficient at what? The most efficient states are authoritarian ones, and although I don’t fear Australia going all Venezuelan, I do see increasing levels of paternalism at a federal level. Tasmania can’t administer hospitals, Canberra will take that, Darwin can’t manage the escalating breakdown of law and order in remote Aboriginal settlements, Canberra will have that too, the list is expansive and depressing.

  27. Brendan Halfweeg says:

    Jacques, the NT had a vote on this, and they didn’t trust their local politicians with state powers. They voted to remain a territory.

  28. Jacques Chester says:

    Brendan;

    I was there. It was more complicated than that. Most Territorians supported statehood, but did not support the proposed constitution or the terms set by Canberra. There is an important difference.

  29. I know, I was just sstirring the anti-government pot. They wanted to have 12 Senators, giving a Territorian 30 times more representation in the Senate than a New South Welshman, rather than the 3 offered up by Canberra.

    If Monarchists can say Australians don’t want to be a Republic, then I can say Territorians rejected statehood ;)

  30. Paul Frijters says:

    Jacques,

    “tell me how one would over-read the blanket criticism in your statement wasteful, stupid, vacuous inanity which takes place in every single council in Australia ?

    You cant over-read it. Its true. Find me a local council that isnt a basket case and I might add it as a footnote.

    :-) and I though it was up to the person making outrageous statemebnts to prove them, not up to the onlookers to disprove them.
    I can see from the further reactions by Jc and Ken that I’m disrupting a not-too-serious bout of government-bashing. Sorry, do keep on. I’m sure the million of or so civil servants trying to do their jobs in this country dont mind being told their job could be done with only 10% of them (Jc’s contention, allowing for a typo). I suppose its healthy for a country to countain a group that is skeptical of the government and every group has its outliers.

  31. Jacques Chester says:

    They wanted to have 12 Senators, giving a Territorian 30 times more representation in the Senate than a New South Welshman, rather than the 3 offered up by Canberra.

    No, we wanted the same representation every Australian living in a state enjoys: 12 senators.

  32. Jacques Chester says:

    Im sure the million of or so civil servants trying to do their jobs in this country dont mind being told their job could be done with only 10% of them (Jcs contention, allowing for a typo).

    Paul;

    Go back to my core point: local government is not very good, the Commonwealth isn’t much better. Abolishing the states will not improve service because there will be less interest in scrutinising many smaller governments than 7 bigger ones.

    As for the million or so public servants, I don’t think the point is that the job could be done without them. I think point is, why does their job exist at all?

  33. No, we wanted the same representation every Australian living in a state enjoys: 12 senators.

    That would be relevent if the Senate operated as intended, to represent state rights, but it doesn’t. The Senate is in desperate need for reform. Giving the NT equal representation in the Senate would have exacerbated the flaws in the current system and made it that much harder to acheive reform.

    As for the million or so public servants, I dont think the point is that the job could be done without them. I think point is, why does their job exist at all?

    Exactly.

  34. Jason Soon says:

    Brendan
    “efficient’ to me has exactly the same meaning for government provision of a service as it does for private sector provision. i.e. we do charge government with delvering some services such as policing and defence and it should do so as cost effectively as possible but also at the quality and levels demanded by the public and targeted at apropriate places. why on earth would you be against efficient government? are you a classical liberal or some sort of Gandhian-Tolstoyan nihilist who would prefer to live in Somalia?

  35. David Coles says:

    Having lived in two places directly governed by the Commonwealth, both without any effective form of local representative government at the time, I can attest to the difficulty in holding the Commonwealth accountable on ‘local’ or even ‘regional/state’ issues.

    A Commonwealth Minister is always going to have more of an eye on their own constituency, party or a national agenda than on the needs of the territory they govern. At least that was the case with the ACT and the NT when they were formally under Commonwealth direct control.

    In the NT we are seeing an example of a sloppy and expensive intervention by the Commonwealth aimed more at winning votes in other places than meeting real needs in the NT. This doesn’t provide much hope that there would better accountability or better services if the Commonwealth formally took back control.

    Gough Whitlam put forward a proposition for 18 regional councils to replace the States in a paper in 1966 as I recall. Although my memory of the actual boundaries is hazy I think they were much more justifiable in terms of the achievement of some reasonable community of interest than the current State boundaries.

    Perhaps a revised Constitution could be developed, argued and agreed in time for the bi-centenary of the Federation?

  36. Brendan Halfweeg says:

    Jason, I was referring to making current government services more efficient, like hospitals, education, welfare. These things don’t need more efficiency, they need less government provision of them. Minimise the state and increase the efficiency of core services like defence and law and order. Focusing on delivering government services that could be efficiently provided by private suppliers is nonsensical. Totalitarian regimes may get the trains to run on time, but then so can free enterprise. I know which method of service delivery I’d prefer.

  37. Ken Lovell says:

    … a not-too-serious bout of government-bashing.

    Well speaking for myself Paul the ‘not-too-serious’ bit is correct. But seriously, if you read my comment I wasn’t having a go at the number of people employed in local government but at their archaic management practices, which ultimately reflect upon the elected councillors. They could and should be a lot more effective and efficient … which is not the same thing as saying they should sack staff.

  38. Jc says:

    What would you do with inefficent staff. kenL

  39. flapple says:

    I am not sure why we need a federal government. the most successful states are often small, Sweden, Switzerland, Denmark, Singapore. The States are directly connected to the Communities they serve, the Commonwealth is ensconced in the unreal world of Canberra. Why not abolish the Commonwealth and just go for States and local Government?

  40. James says:

    Switzerland is a federation (the Confederation Helvetica, hence .ch). There’s definitely a case to be made for the states having more control over their funding, instead of sucking on the federal teat. Rudd’s plan would be good, but better would be letting the states raise income tax again – nothing focuses attention faster than “your tax dollars being mis-spent” without the smokescreen of federal-state finger pointing.

  41. Russ says:

    Mark, my understanding of it was that the easiest solution would be to use the new states clauses in the constitution, as they only require parliamentary approval at federal and state level. Either by amalgamating all the states, or creating regional government through splits.

    Jacques, while I agree with your comments regarding federal bureaucracy and local government, I think it is worth adding that the amount of attention given to our politicians is in proportion to their importance in setting policy. The greater the centralisation, the less scrutiny we’ve had of state government, and the worse the quality of its parliamentarians. Devolving power to local/regional government would, to some degree, improve its standing and the type of people who run. Having said that, there is a risk of domination by powerful personalities and/or one party. Some of our regions aren’t very diverse.

    Regionalism would probably exacerbate, rather than reduce, federal intervention. If NSW and Victoria can’t stand up to Federal busy-bodies what hope would Western District or Gippsland have? “Idle Hands Are The Devils Tools” and all, our parliamentarians in Canberra aren’t prone to sitting on their hands.

  42. Brendan Halfweeg says:

    Russ, “idle hands” is exactly what we want, commonwealth politicians sitting around, hamstrung by the constitution with next to no revenue and no portfolios (except immigration, defence, federal policing, foreign affairs), meeting only every so often to decide what next generation military hardware to buy, appoint high court judges, set immigration criteria and debate foreign threats. There may be more legitimate functions for a federal government, but you get my drift of a tiny federal government beholden to the regional governments and the electorate for patronage.

    Government should not be about doing anything, it should be about protecting Australian’s (negative) rights while they get on with their own business.

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