Short Essay: Strengths and Weaknesses of Federalism for Australia

The acceptance of Australias’ constitution created a system of government for its disparate colonies, in the form of a ‘federation’.  Explanation varies as to why this form of government was chosen, which has faced a decline in popularity (Ward & Stewart, 2010, Galligan, 2003), with claims of inherent weaknesses.  To explore this, the strengths of federalism, along with these identified weaknesses will be highlighted.

The disparate colonies, with differing needs and difficulties, had developed their own ‘imagined communities’ (Anderson, as cited in Barker & Kelly, 2008, p. 129), which gave rise to differing outlooks and goals.  Federalism, which allowed the retainment of this shared community and ‘local patriotism’ (Craven, 2001, Gillespie, 1994), was seen as the method where the colonies could join together for issues of national importance, whilst retaining their own identities.  This feature of the constitution allowed the states to have an individual ability to set policy priorities, and develop responses that were specific to their circumstances, and their respective electorates.  This is the likely reason why federalism is seen as ‘closer to the people’, with the ability to be more responsive to the needs of their electorates, and so being more accountable to them.  Arguably, this was the founders’ intention (Galligan, 2003, Ward & Stewart, 2010, Singleton et al., 2003).

This ‘tailoring’ approach was not the only benefit here, since by allowing different policies in the states, and utilising the competitive spirit that developed within this evolving community, new policies were able to be ‘tested’, allowing for a wider range of policy mixes that ‘work’ to be found, which could subsequently be copied or innovated by the other states.  Unfortunately, this competitive spirit has also had a negative effect, in that policies that require collaboration and agreement between the states can be difficult to achieve (Singleton et al., 2003, Ward & Stewart, 2010).

Co-ordinate federalism, where the states had clearly defined and separate roles than that of the federal government was the expectation at Australias’ formation  (Singleton et al., 2003).  Over time, this has changed to become increasingly collaborative, to a ‘cooperative federalism’ (Ward & Stewart, 2010).  This has become necessary not least because of relatively recent changes to taxation, where the Commonwealth government now has ‘fiscal dominance’ (Ward & Stewart, 2010), where they are the primary collector of revenue, creating a Vertical Fiscal Imbalance (VFI).  This provides the commonwealth government with considerably more leverage to govern spending policy, which were decisions intended for states.  This control of spending policy has hindered the founders’ intended limits on government (Ward & Stewart, 2010).

In addition to the VFI, some federal services and policies now encroach onto state territory, leading to some area of duplication (Ward & Stewart, 2010, Singleton et al., 2003).  This can have negative consequences, primarily in lesser efficiency because there is ‘too much government’ (Abbot, as cited in Ward & Stewart, 2010); however it can also be argued that this can provide benefits to the electorate, in that they can pursue alternate avenues for resolution of difficulties (Singleton et al., 2003, Ward & Stewart, 2010).

I have shown that the strengths of federalism are: being closer to the people, increasing responsiveness and accountability; acts as a limit on government, has allowed the cultures of the states to flourish, has provided the ability to utilise different policies based on state differences, and allowed testing of new ideas before mass implementation, to find policy mixes that work.  I have also established the antagonistic features; the primary concerns with federalism are duplication of services, VFI, difficulties in securing national agreement and ‘too much government’.

 

Bibliography

Barker, J. & Kelly, S. (2008) ‘Technology and Nationalism’ in G. Herb & D. Kaplan, (eds.), Nations and Nationalism: A Global Historical Overview,Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 126-136.

Craven, G. 2001. The Australian States and the Australian Nation. in Sunday Special – The Barton Lectures Part 7 Australian Broadcasting Commission, Australia: Radio National. Radio (Transcript).

Gillespie, J. (1994) ‘New federalisms’ in J. Brett, J. Gillespie & M. Goot, (eds.), Developments in Australian Politics,60-87.

Galligan, B. (2003) ‘Federalism and the Constitution’ in The Cambridge handbook of social sciences in Australia,Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Singleton, G., Aitken, D., Jinks, B. & Warhurst, J. (2003) Australian political institutions, 7th ed., Frenchs Forest, N.S.W.:Pearson Education.

Ward, I. & Stewart, R. G. (2010) Politics One, 4th ed., South Melbourne:Palgrave Macmillan Australia.

 

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