Beyond Federation

| March 9, 2015

A group of citizens has been exploring several models without state government under the label “beyond federation”. Klaas Woldring explains who they are and where they want to go.

Since 2002, a small group of citizens from diverse locations and backgrounds have come together in “Congresses”, thirteen of them, in various places along the Australian East Coast. Starting with Max Bradley’s “Shed-a-Tier” concept we explored various models without state government. We corresponded much by email to share their ideas about improving governance in Australia under the label “Beyond Federation”.

Our group agrees that the Constitution of 1901 has passed its use-by-date and that state governments should be phased out. Now we have published a book. The aim of this book is to inform and stimulate its readers’ interest in the governance of Australia, beyond federation. Although the current PM Tony Abbott clearly supported the phasing out of states only a few years ago conservative federalists have persuaded him to return to the idea of strengthening the states instead. Clearly we have different plans.

Why federalism should be abandoned and replaced.

The Reform of Federation Paper “A Federation for Our Future”, recently published by the Abbott Government to generate a White Paper, is another reincarnation of “cooperative federalism”.

The Council of Australian Governments (COAG), a body originally formed to stimulate “cooperative federalism”, has taken on a bureaucratic existence of its own, actually adding to the already considerable expense of federation. To the extent that it has managed to streamline some of the appalling duplications and administrative hassles of recent decades the case for replacing federation has actually been strengthened. To think that the huge imbalances in federal-state financial relations can be reversed to a pre-1942 situation is to ignore history. Some of those who want to turn the clock back under the motto that they want to improve, repair or rescue the federation are now also insisting that COAG should be written into Australia’s archaic Constitution. Federation has not assisted decentralisation. It is at the state level that centralisation has become a major problem.

Piecemeal tinkering with the existing federation cannot make it work; underlying problems remain and grow worse. If, as some well-known academics and economists maintain, no major remedies are possible, we need to look at the several constitutional and political problems that frustrate real remedies. We need to look beyond federation as a system of government AND understand why federation no longer is a requirement for the development of the nation but has long been an increasingly costly hindrance. It is no longer a natural fit as it once was. Research by Griffith University and our own researcher, Dr. Mark Drummond, regularly shows that most Australians no longer support the federation. In short, we need a quite different structure and should be prepared to look at a total package of changes.

Our first port of call would be to address the impossible situation that the Constitution cannot be amended to suit the nation as it now is and how it could be shaped for the future. Why is this so? That question is rarely raised in Australia, not by the major parties, not by most academics and not by our Public Broadcasters either. However, we should look well beyond the serious inadequacies of Section 128. There are plenty. This task is not beyond us.

Secondly, the problems with Australia’s electoral systems are probably even more serious. Many people fail to see the relevance of them to constitutional change. The compulsory preferential single-member-district system has given Australia an often dysfunctional adversarial two-party system. The electoral system is grossly biased in favour of the major parties, who don’t like to change it. But this adversarial system blocks the generation of constitutional amendments; or, if generated, the passing of them in referendums. Moreover, only politicians – in practice of the major parties – can initiate constitutional amendments. The federal-state differences are further aggravated by having different parties in government in Canberra and in the states. The blame game, already a highly negative feature of the party system in lower houses, is intensified enormously by federal-state differences.

Given that far-reaching budgetary stresses have emerged in Australia, as a result of several hard to combat factors, the cost of federation as a structure, possibly $40 billion per annum, has now become of paramount importance. In spite of this neither major party considers its replacement and the abolition of the states. Holding on to Federation, as the Government Inquiry strongly suggests, is a highly undesirable strategy. But quite apart from that the renewal of the Australian Constitution is very essential for many other reasons. One such reason is that we need much better system of decentralisation and de-concentration of population in our five major cities. The poor use of living space in Australia and the growing traffic congestion in major cities is plainly ridiculous. For Sydney to have over 6 m. people in 2036 is a monument to the Federation’s failure, as is, of course, the absolutely parlous state of local government, the Cinderella of the system.

We need more active supporters in the first place.

Perhaps we need a formal structure – we are discussing that right now. We have in mind to organise a one-day Conference in Gosford, late June, with a number of high profile speakers in favour of replacing the Federation and major constitutional change. They really do exist! If you can help in some way let us know please.



  1. Max Thomas

    Max Thomas

    March 9, 2015 at 12:01 pm


    Thanks for your blog Klaas. The founders quite obviously wanted to 'weld' the constitution to secure it against changes they might have seen as 'fashionable' and potentially dangerous. With the American civil war in recent memory, the prospect of colonial armies facing each other across the Murray over trade etc, would have been terrifying. It seems clear that the only way around section 128 is to inform the people of the reasons why they need to at least devote some thought to the benefits of change. Looking at the inadequacy of the education system on this topic, it is not surprising that so many Australians have little knowledge or interest in how we are governed. In that sense we may thank the founders. I shudder at the thought of a half-baked referendum that could deliver a compromise featuring a popularly elected president at odds with the Parliament. A few ideas that might be included in a discussion of options for amendments to the present constitution: Four-year House of Reps terms; States to retain present borders; State Parliaments to be replaced by Senators elected as they are at present; voting to be as at present but with non-compulsory preferences in the reps and no preferences in the Senate; proportional representation based on the NZ model; restore independence of the public sector with constitutional limits on political interference; full disclosure of party donations; ban paid lobbyists, especially ex-MPs; limited public funding of election campaigns; enshrine taxation and financial sector principles to support progressive equity and limit economic distortions; citizen-initiated referendums; local government to be defined in the constitution and funded directly by the Australian government. Consideration could be given to local government being responsible directly to the Senate. Legislation dealing with local government only could be introduced into the Senate and referred to the House of Reps for review.

    • klaas.woldring


      May 10, 2015 at 11:01 am

      Tunnel Vision and the East West Link Tunnel

      “Tunnel Vision” is a medical condition caused by damage to the optic nerve. Conversely, a loss of peripheral vision occurred in Victoria recently and it did a lot of damage to the collective hip pocket nerve. Regardless of the technical arguments for and against the East West Link Tunnel, the ‘opportunity costs’ of the outcome are considerable and might have been avoided but for conflict between the (then) State government of Victoria and its political opposition with federal government intervention. An 18km tollway was to connect the western suburbs of Melbourne to the existing Eastern Freeway at a cost of more than $5 billion. The state government signed contracts for the project just prior to the state election in 2014. The opposition, having won the election, terminated the contract in April 2015, paying out $400 million to the construction consortium in compensation. A lot of political noise accompanied the process. The federal government made it clear that its $3 billion contribution would be withdrawn if the project was halted and the money would not be available for alternative public transport proposals. The Prime Minister repeatedly declared his dismay: “I can't think of anything more crazy than spending $1.2 billion not to build a road” but saying nothing about other possible uses for the funds. Demands on the public purse are growing exponentially and with revenue shrinking, the need for rational decision-making and distribution of funds has become critical. “Beyond Federation” is a group of Australians who say that the adversarial positions of the major political parties on the East West Link Tunnel is typical of the costly nonsense that diminishes the viability and efficiency of our federation. It is not just a matter of impartial differences between federal and state governments; it is the product of divided sovereignty combined with a nation-wide adversarial two-party system. The Tunnel example followed the usual pattern and included the ‘blame game’ when the Government changes either at federal or state level. These costly inefficiencies and delays have obstructed many other major infrastructure projects in the past, most notably the second Sydney International Airport. This situation cannot be remedied by COAG; by more piecemeal tinkering; or by a Grants Commission or yet another inquiry. In a unitary state, by far the most common structure in the world, major infrastructure schemes are the responsibility of the National Government. Beyond Federation argues that this can only be achieved in Australia by overhauling or replacing the federal constitution, including the abolition of the state governments. Klaas Woldring and Max Thomas