The tentacles of federal power surely are spreading in a funny fashion under Australia’s federal system. Take this week’s example from Tasmania where decisions made in Canberra are determining what kind of shopping centre is available to the local populace.

The extension of federal power all has to do with airports. When they were sold off by the Commonwealth to private enterprise the land remained free of the planning requirements of state and local government. So Hobart airport is about to become home to what is billed as Australia’s largest direct factory outlet. Right alongside the terminal buildings there are plans for a shopping complex covering an area equivalent to nine football fields.

A big shopping box of this size will surely change the pattern of shopping in the southern capital and the Hobart City Council, Tasmanian Greens, State Liberal Opposition, Tasmanian Chamber of Commerce and many Hobart retailers are up in arms about it. The self-interest of some of these opponents is easy to identify but there has been very little debate about the social impact of the development on the city of Hobart and its residents.

Having a major shopping centre outside a city proper has an enormous impact on an area, as anyone observing the growth of Wal-Marts in the United States would realise. The centre of cities can become a wasteland when retailing dies and the motor car becomes an even more essential part of life for consumers.

That there are advantages as well for consumers from lower prices and, perhaps, greater choice also cannot be denied. The Tasmanian Labor Government certainly seems to think that these outweigh the downside with State Treasurer Michael Aird arguing that people have a right to choose where they shop. “The issue is not about planning law,” says Mr Aird. “It’s about consumer choice.”

Well it might be but if federalism is to mean anything, shouldn’t decisions like these be made by state and local authorities and not by a Federal Transport Minister?

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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