Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott have made much of the need to “fix federalism”.
But while Rudd has put most of his efforts into improving COAG and “co-operative federalism”, Abbott wants more radical change that would put more power in the hands of the Commonwealth.
Compared to most federations, Australia already puts a lot of legislative and financial power in the hands of the central government. A string of High Court decisions have given the Commonwealth power over areas that were once managed by the states. And its control of the purse strings enables it to influence state policy by issuing conditional grants.
Abbott would go further. He says the current arrangements create blurred lines of responsibility and allow states to shift the blame for poor performance, especially in areas such as health, education and the environment. He wants reform that puts one level of government — the Commonwealth — in charge.
In his book, Battlelines, Abbott argues for a constitutional amendment that would allow the Commonwealth to make laws for the peace, order and good government of Australia. This would mean that the Commonwealth could make laws on any topic. It would also give it a free hand to override state laws in the event of conflict.
This would, in effect, reduce the states to the status of territories. They would remain self-governing, but the Commonwealth could intervene at will. Over time, their role might be reduced to that of mere service deliverers, following whatever policy direction is set in Canberra.
For Abbott, an exemplar of this approach to federalism is the Northern Territory intervention. He sees it as an ideal example of what can be achieved with a strong central government and, under his approach, the Commonwealth could do the same in the states.
The implications of such an approach are also apparent from looking at the crisis in the Murray-Darling Basin. The federal government could implement a national basin plan, reduce water allocations and remove trading barriers. And it could do so without consultation, and without fear of its decisions being challenged in the courts.
If we take him at his word, the federation under Abbott would look very different indeed. For one thing, the 20-year experiment with co-operative federalism would be dead. The Commonwealth would set policy direction and the states would be forced to march into line.
Federal governments would also have a far greater capacity to introduce sweeping reforms. Far-reaching policies such as WorkChoices could be implemented across the country without fear of challenge.
And there would be far less scope for policy experimentation or diversity among the states. Any state laws with a whiff of controversy — think euthanasia or gay marriage — could be overturned with impunity.
In the end, Abbott’s plan for Australia’s federal system amounts to a populist pitch, which, in practice, has little chance of being achieved. It taps into popular disaffection with state governments but carries no guarantee of improving policy delivery. Whether in the Murray-Darling Basin or elsewhere, hard decisions remain no matter who is in charge. Abbott’s plans are bold and bracing, but they are no silver bullet.
Paul Kildea is federalism project director at the Gilbert + Tobin Centre of Public Law, University of New South Wales