Photo by Joey Csunyo on Unsplash

On Friday morning last week I put on the TV in Queensland to catch the final stages of the Sydney to Hobart yacht race on commercial television, claimed to be live, revealing Wild Oats XI still well short of the finishing line. At the same time I switched on my laptop only to read that Wild Oats had won nearly an hour earlier – skipper Mark Richards had already claimed “redemption” in the media, drank a “shoey”, and been thrown in the Derwent.

Not only does this make a mockery of the so-called “live coverage of breaking news” but, yet again, emphasises the continuing stupidity of so many aspects of our Federation – in this case with Queensland having decided against daylight saving, unlike the other East Coast States – NSW, Victoria, and Tasmania. It boggles my mind that we happily persist with a multiplicity of time zones, while China, with a bigger land mass than Australia, has just one time zone.

Sure, this is, in itself, of minor significance. But, at a time in our history where it is perhaps more important than it has ever been to be able to take a national view, and to formulate policy and govern in the national interest, the anachronistic structure and operation of our Federation is a very significant disadvantage and restraint.

Our Federation is “broken”, still dominated (even as adjusted) by the structures set in place against the background of the issues and choices of the 1890s – it is unfair, offers little incentive/reward for efficiency and improved performance, let alone matching the needs, hopes, and aspirations of today’s, and future, Australians.

The overlap in key policy areas, the failure to clearly allocate policy and delivery responsibilities, the misallocation of important responsibilities, different legal and regulatory jurisdictions and rules, and so on, results in enormously wasteful government spending, excessive bureaucracy, too many politicians, poor/inefficient delivery of many important government services, and the unnecessary complication and increased expense of the day-to-day lives of business and the broader citizenry. It has also created the political game of blame shifting at the expense of problem solving, to the detriment of effective governance.

To cite a few examples: while schools and hospitals are essentially state responsibilities, and many universities are state owned, we maintain huge federal government departments of health and education; a key national asset such as the Great Barrier Reef is essentially a Queensland responsibility; the mess that is made by exploiting the politics of major infrastructure projects, compounded by poor planning, assessment, and implementation; the ridiculous need to have to extradite criminals across state borders, against the background of different definitions of crimes, bail arrangements, penalties, and in their application and enforcement; different road rules, industrial relations systems, workers compensation and insurance arrangements, energy strategies, business arrangements, and dozens and dozens of other examples, both big and small.

While taxing powers have progressively moved to the federal level, creating a significant gap between responsibilities in raising and spending the money (the so-called “vertical fiscal imbalance”), tax operation and reform has been further complicated by the insane decision of the Howard Government giving the GST revenue to the States (necessitating the regular fight as to its distribution), and the States having control over two key, potentially more efficient, taxes on payrolls and land, but where the States have frittered away much of their effectiveness competing with each other to attract businesses and custom.

This situation has also been compounded by the shift in political structures, most importantly the change in the nature of the Senate, from its original conception as a “States House”, to represent and protect State interests, to a situation where the role of Senators is now a complex mix of state, regional, national, party, and ideological interests and motivations – to refer to the Senate today as a States House has been described as pretty much as the last refuge of the scoundrel.

Reform of our Federation, its structure, funding and operation, is now both a necessary and sufficient requirement for our nation to define itself and its future.

Clearly, this will not be easy in the world of our short-term, opportunistic, mostly negative, politics, not only wanting our political, business and civil society leaders to rise above the day-to-day political mire, but also to establish some convention-type process to engage our broad citizenry.

Surely, it would be most productive to begin with almost a blank piece of paper, working to define where or what we would want our nation to be in (say) 30 years from now, hopefully to end with an agreed reallocation of roles and responsibilities, defining the essential constitutional changes and regulatory steps required to achieve that vision. At the very least, the challenge for this year’s Christmas list should be to identify all the impediments to the smooth operation of our nation, to focus attention on the problem.

I had great hope that Tony Abbott’s promised reviews of our Federation and tax system would provide the basis of such a process but, as with so much about Abbott, it went nowhere.

The need is urgent, and clearly beyond the capabilities of any of our current, or prospective, short-term-focused, politically driven, governments. Nothing short of a truly independent, fully funded, Federation and Tax Commission would be appropriate to the magnitude of the challenge, and to the need to marshal the involvement and support of the true broad church of the Australian people and institutions.

First published at the Sydney Morning Herald on Wednesday 2 January 2019.

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