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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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On a positive note, the fifth and final lesson from this background is that the 21st century political landscape does appear to hold improved prospects for a productive approach – including a heightened capacity to make more informed short-term choices. There is little complacency about current arrangements, at any level of government. Instead there is widespread consensus that it is worth considering almost anything, if it can help contribute to more effective, responsive, adaptive and efficient governance. Many of the ideologies that dichotomised political debate over the size, role and structure of government in the 20th century have disappeared. So too have the more parochial ‘states’ rights’ perspectives that once helped ensure that any constitutional debate was likely to degenerate immediately into a federal-state stand-off – it is difficult to imagine a state premier ever again telling Japanese hosts that he is ‘not from Australia, but from Queensland’, as Joh Bjelke-Petersen is once reputed to have done. On questions of regional institution-building, the destructive ideological deadlock of the Cold War era has long since receded, in which social progressives tended to fear new state ideas as an agenda of rural fascists, and conservatives opposed alternative regional or provincial bodies as some kind of centralised, urban Communist plot.

Instead, we have an environment in which all political parties tend to have equally minimalist commitments to any kind of constitutional development, and the focus is a pragmatic one, on simply making the existing system of government work better. While this scarcely sounds visionary, when the unproductive nature of past debates over regional devolution are considered, this new ‘year zero’ of thinking about federalism is, in fact, a safe place to start. If we get the next phase of federal reform wrong – for example, if the under-capacity of local and regional governance are not addressed, and ‘subsidiarity’ principles remain simply a rhetorical device in the tussles between national and state governments – then history is likely to lead us back to where we already are or have been. If we get it right, and find new ways to develop the practical machinery of federalism to recognise, empower and utilise local and regional action, we will not only have achieved a theoretical resolution of the relationship between federalism and regionalism in Australia; we will also have moved towards more durable solutions to some of the pressing policy challenges and problems set out in this book, in which we already know local and regional action to be vital.

Whether strong or weak, transient or a symptom of something longer term, regionalism is alive and well in Australia today, and it matters in both political Federalism and Regionalism in Australia and public policy terms. As new national approaches unfold in most major policy areas, more and more we recognise these are unlikely to work without also growing the capacity of local and regional governance.

This chapter concludes with a picture from the cover of The New State Magazine of 1922 (Figure 2.5). This is not because the option of new state governments represents a solution to everything, but because the image helps reinforce the depth of our own historical capacity to think about these issues. While the map shows an alternative political structure for Australia, the magazine as a whole carries the motto ‘For a Bigger Australia’. It may be that it is not actually practical to create a bigger Australia, but the reform of federalism is certainly motivated by a vision of a better Australia, and this remains the outcome we should expect from more informed, research-based policy and political discussion about the development of our institutions in the long term.

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Figure 2.5.

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