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«Chapter 2: Federalism, Regionalism and the Reshaping of Australian Governance A. J. Brown Introduction For at least a generation, Australia has been ...»

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Chapter 2: Federalism, Regionalism and

the Reshaping of Australian


A. J. Brown


For at least a generation, Australia has been regarded as, ‘constitutionally

speaking’, a frozen continent (Sawer 1967). In the face of social and economic

change and diverse pressures for adaptation in the structures of government,

there has been little change, since 1901, in the formal structures of our federal

system or success in updating the formal text of the federal Constitution. In reality, however, Australia’s systems of government and public administration have been anything but static. Indeed, since the times of Australia’s Indigenous political geography – particularly over the 10,000 years since the last ice age – systems of social governance across the ‘island continent’ have been extremely adaptive. Ever since British colonisation began in earnest in the 1820s, movements for the political separation of colonies and blueprints for local, district and provincial government have produced a rich tapestry of options for postcolonial governance, many of them still fundamental in enduring institutions (Brown 2005, 2006). Administrative innovation to cope with Australian demography and economic geography has been ongoing since before the advent of responsible government in the 1850s, and accelerated by Federation in 1901 and the rise of the modern federal welfare state through the late 20th century.

More recently, pressures of economic, environmental and social sustainability in the face of a globalising world have introduced entirely new interactions between politics and administration, government and the community, and the different levels of government. Although formal changes in intergovernmental power-sharing have been minimal, massive practical shifts have occurred on the back of changing judicial interpretations of Commonwealth and state power.

Most recently, the High Court’s invalidation of many state taxes in 1997 (Ha

1997) led directly to a New Tax System based on the new federally-collected Goods and Services Tax (GST), and the Court’s 2006 interpretation of federal power to regulate corporations has changed the landscape of federal and state industrial relations (WorkChoices 2006), with further areas of regulation set to follow. Federal proposals to take over the regulation of water rights across the nation’s largest river system, the Murray-Darling Basin, are indicative of the appetite for change in the fundamentals of who runs what within our system of Federalism and Regionalism in Australia government. When it comes to the politics and practice of Australian federalism, we live in very interesting times.

Many Australians regard the main direction of change in Australia’s systems of government, since the 1940s, as primarily one of centralisation – the growth of federal power, and the progressive decline in influence of the once-powerful state governments (Craven 2005, 2006). However the picture is not so simple, especially when the extent of public support for change, and the causes of this growing federal influence, are closely analysed. With the strong trend to more uniform and consistent national regulation of business and the economy, state governments have bounced back with innovation in the design and delivery of social services (see Twomey and Withers 2007). Local government, always the poor cousin if not ‘lame duck’ in the Australian federal system, has grown rapidly in capacity and importance. Pressure for increased federal spending and intervention on matters such as environmental management, are indicative not only of public demands for more coordinated, national approaches, but for more action and greater flexibility ‘on the ground’. More decentralised governance approaches have evolved, not only economically through privatisation and contracting-out of services, but in the form of new strategies of community engagement and place management (e.g. Beer, Bellamy, Podger, this volume).

Despite the lack of change in the formal structures of federalism, unprecedented attention is being given to how Australia can progress towards a more responsive, adaptive system of government. Within the pressures for stronger central action lie at least as many pressures for devolution in the resources and capacity to deal with today’s pressing social, economic and environmental challenges.

This chapter seeks to frame an important new set of questions confronting Australian governance, by seeking to reconcile these apparently inconsistent trends in public policy – dramatic centralisation in federal-state relations on one hand, yet on the other, a major new interest in improved policy and service delivery capacities at decentralised levels. Why is Australia experiencing both of these trends at the same time, and are they as inconsistent as they superficially appear? The answers are interrelated. By positing five key facts about the nature of Australian federalism, and eliciting five lessons from Australian political and constitutional history about the relationship between federalism and regionalism, the chapter seeks to demonstrate that it is perfectly logical that centralising and decentralising pressures should be found operating together within contemporary governance debates. Indeed, as many chapters in this book reinforce, it appears to be at least partly because of public dissatisfaction with Australia’s strong history of centralised governance at the state level, that successive federal governments have come under such strong pressure (or viewed another way, have been given the political opportunity) to intervene and interfere in so many policy areas traditionally lying at state and local levels. But if state governments are perceived as having had such trouble, historically, in delivering quality Federalism, Regionalism and the Reshaping of Australian Governance governance outcomes in an effective, efficient and responsive way, then what hope does an increasingly interventionist national government have for doing so, or even for finally forcing change in long-established patterns of state government behaviour? If the effort is to yield sustainable outcomes, it is now important to better chart the institutional implications of these shifting relationships between the different levels – formal and informal – of the Australian federation.

Ships in the night? ‘State-regionalism’ and ‘region-regionalism’ As background to the key facts and lessons relevant to current institutional choices, it is important to confront the difficult relationship between concepts of federalism and regionalism in Australia. We need look no further than the standard international political science definition of federalism, to be reminded that federalism and regionalism are fundamentally intertwined, in theory and practice. According to this definition, federalism is ‘a system of government in which authority is constitutionally divided between central and regional governments’ (Gillespie 1994). In Australia, the constitutionally-recognised ‘regions’ of the federation are the six States, being the former British colonies as they stood in 1900. However the force given to ‘state-regionalism’ under the 1901 Constitution immediately raises a tension, because our normal understanding of a ‘region’ – in political life, in economic life, in biogeographic terms and so on – is very different. For the most part, it rarely and sometimes never aligns with our concepts of state government.

Occasionally, we find commentators trying to make Australian federalism fit the mould of the international definition, by describing the 19th century process of colonial subdivision as one in which British political authority was fragmented between ‘six regional centres’ (Holmes and Sharman 1977: 12-14). However such descriptions are rare, because as an ex post facto justification of Australia’s current structure they are, from a historical perspective, grossly inaccurate (see Brown 2004a, b; 2005; 2006). Since at least the late 1960s, when the legitimacy of federal principles began to revive among Australian experts, much of the debate about the practical realities of federalism has, consequently, resembled two ships passing in the night. Many experts and policy actors have based their analyses on the constitutionally-recognised assumption that ‘state-regional’ differences are the only ones that matter, when it comes to trying to make the federal system work (see Holmes and Sharman 1977: 34-101, 172-80; Galligan 1986: 245-55). In the real world of public policy and popular political culture, however, the vast bulk of citizens operate on an entrenched assumption that Australia has many more than six regions (as also recognised by Holmes and Sharman 1977: 86, 129).

Does this definitional conflict matter in practice, as opposed to theory? The answer is sometimes presumed to be ‘no’, because the concept of ‘regionalism’ Federalism and Regionalism in Australia in Australian public policy itself takes at least four different forms. First, the concern to map trends in globalisation sees the term ‘region’ often used in a supra-national sense, as meaning groupings of the nations of the globe (e.g. ‘the Asia-Pacific region’). Without exception, ‘regionalism’ is not used in this sense in this book, even though globalisation does have importance for the concepts of subnational regionalism here discussed. Second, as we already see above, many experts in federalism need to see regionalism expressed in direct, political, geographically-specific ways before it can potentially take on constitutional significance. This is true at subnational, supra-national and trans-national levels alike. From this view, credible movements for secession are perhaps the easiest way to identify a ‘region’ in this way (e.g. the Basque region in Spain, Scotland in Britain, or Quebec in Canada), although less militant forms of cultural regionalism are also generally recognised (e.g. regional differences within France, Italy or Switzerland, and indeed between regions such as Ticino that effectively span ‘national’ borders).

However, for reasons associated with the history of the introduction of the term into Australia, at a subnational level regionalism is also defined in a third way – as a reference to ‘administrative’ or ‘scientific’ regionalism, a top-down concept used by experts for purposes of planning, bureaucratic organisation, funding distribution, service delivery or, more recently, community engagement (see Brown 2005: 19-27). This third concept operates independently of regionalism as a bottom-up political or constitutional phenomenon, because it can be used by any government as an administrative strategy for recognising and dealing with the spatial layout of society, whatever the formal political structure. Indeed, because different public programs have different spatial objectives, economies, consumers and stakeholders even within the same community, this concept of regionalism tends to lead to multiple, overlapping definitions of what is a ‘region’ in any given area; as well as multiple, overlapping and sometimes conflicting regional institutions of various kinds.

These regions are actually more accurately described as a product of top-down ‘regionalisation’, than bottom-up ‘regionalism’ based on political self-identification and/or cultural expression (for more on the difference, see Ford 2001: 204-8; Bellamy et al 2003; Gray 2004). Just because many conceptions of ‘the region’ are generated from the top-down, however, does not mean that they do not also provide an accurate description of the social, economic, political and cultural demography of the nation. Regionalisations may be normative, such as Australia’s first official national regionalisation in 1949, setting out 97 ‘regions for development and decentralisation’ (see Brown 2005: 20); and there are important debates over the effects of the different ways in which regional boundaries are drawn, or revised, in public policy (e.g. Brunckhorst and Reeve 2006). However, many regionalisations are purely descriptive, and indeed sometimes also reflect ‘bottom-up’ political realities. From the web of regional Federalism, Regionalism and the Reshaping of Australian Governance boundaries drawn by federal and/or state and/or local governments, broad patterns emerge which confirm that for the vast majority of public purposes and programs – at all levels of governance – we operate according to agreed understandings of ‘region-regionalism’ with little or no relationship with the ‘state-regionalism’ embedded in the Constitution. Currently, key national

regionalisations include:

• the 85 biogeographic regions of Australia, identified cooperatively by federal and state government scientists since the early 1990s (DEH 2000);

• the 69 statistical divisions, based on agreed definitions of a ‘region’, identified cooperatively by federal and state statisticians and used by the Australian Bureau of Statistics since 1969-1973 (ABS 2006);

• the 64 regions identified by the formation of voluntary Regional Organisations of Councils (ROCs), i.e. groupings of the approximately 700 local governments in Australia;

• the 57 regions of the federal-state natural resource management regional bodies administering the Natural Heritage Trust (NHT) and National Action Plan (NAP) on Water Quality and Salinity (DEH 2004); and

• the 54 regions of the nation’s Area Consultative Committees (ACCs), administering Commonwealth regional development assistance funds (DOTARS 2005, 2007) – see Figure 2.1.

Figure 2.1.

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