What should happen to the states?
According to a Newspoll, conducted for Griffith University last year, 81 per cent of respondents thought that democracy works well in Australia but only 68 per cent thought that the federal system works well. An overwhelming majority, 79 per cent, supported the proposition: “when there is an important issue that states are not solving, the federal government should step in to solve it”.
The problem which so annoys people, I suspect, is that on a whole range of vital subjects, the Commonwealth supplies at least some of the funding but the states are wholly in charge of the spending.
When things go wrong in hospitals, schools and infrastructure, the premiers blame the prime minister for not giving them enough money and the prime minister blames the premiers for not spending it wisely. The “blame game” must stop, as Mr Rudd said before the election, but how can it be stopped if the institutional arrangements don’t change?
Here are some possible means of addressing the problem.
One, would be to conclude more detailed agreements between the Commonwealth and the states with specific performance targets and penalties for non-compliance. In fact, this is what often happens now but the targets are often fudged and enforcing the penalties would usually make a bad situation worse. Under the healthcare agreements, for instance, the states are supposed to meet agreed waiting times for treatment or lose funding but statistics are often doctored and the fines are never imposed for obvious reasons.
Another would be to give the states revenue raising powers commensurate with their spending responsibilities. This is what the Fraser government tried to do in the 1970s but the states refused to accept them.
A third, and this is the proposal I put in my new book, Battlelines
, is to give the national government general authority over the states. If successful, a referendum to give the Commonwealth a general power to make laws wouldn’t abolish the states or even mean regular interference in their affairs. It would mean, though, that the Commonwealth would have the same authority over them that it has always had over the territories. This is what enabled the intervention to take place in the Northern Territory but not in the states despite similar problems in remote parts of Queensland, Western Australia and South Australia.
What do you think? Is the dysfunctional federation something we just have to live with or can it be improved? And if it can be improved, what is the best way forward?
The Hon. Tony Abbott MHR is the Federal Member for Warringah and Shadow Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs.