As a conservative who has watched the events of the past fortnight in Victoria with a considerable degree of renewed hope, it should come as no surprise that I am an advocate for an increased number of ‘State’ governments in Australia. However, I am not arguing for more State governments because they have been successful; I am arguing for more of them for the reason that State governments are not truly representative of the regions in a geographical or social context. However, current State governments are so enshrined in the Constitution that the changes made must be incremental rather than revolutionary. For this reason, advocates of regional government for the future must adopt the language of “States” to pursue our objectives and the Constitution is obviously the only means to achieve this end.
The States were the original colonies of Australia and it was only their acceptance of the federation that ultimately enabled it to come to fruition. Interestingly, the three States that were most reluctant about joining the Commonwealth were Western Australia, Queensland and New South Wales. The pivotal role of the States, rather than any particular allegiance to decentralism, was in all likelihood the catalyst for the protected place of the States in the Constitution. Moreover, it was interstate rivalry that led to the creation of the Australian Capital Territory. Canberra, which has flourished as the nation’s capital and one of which we should all be proud, came into being largely because neither Sydney nor Melbourne could tolerate the prospect of the other being made the capital city.
Nevertheless, the story of Australia since federation has essentially been one of the increased powers of the Commonwealth at the expense of its State counterparts. Legal historians often trace this back to such cases as The Engineers Case but very few, if any, deny that the Commonwealth has grown as Australia has grown and the institutions that have had to give in order for this power shift to happen have been State governments. This change to a more national approach has basically been in sync with the lives of Australians in that time up till the present. We’re less attached to States than ever before. More Australians (such as myself) tend to have lived in more than one State in our life and we are far more parochial than provincial as a nation.
With this in mind and high levels of dissatisfaction among the electorate, it does raise the obvious question of “where to from here?” for State governments. I believe the Constitution offers us a means of truly ‘moving forward’ to reform State governments in such as way as to satisfy those who staunchly defend State governments and those (such as myself) who see more value in regional governments. It is to be found in Section 124, which pertains to the formation of new States:
“A new State may be formed by separation of territory from a State, but only with the consent of the Parliament thereof, and a new State may be formed by the union of two or more States or parts of States, but only with the consent of the Parliaments of the States affected.”
There are many defenders of our current States who will argue that they are regional governments. I reject that assertion, although I accept that “region” is one of those words that can be very broadly interpreted. (Julie Bishop comprehensively exposed Julia Gillard’s lack of thought on this matter when the Government was explaining its misconceived East Timor ‘regional processing centre’ plans earlier this year.)
The region of North Queensland is very distant to that of the southeastern corner of that State. The sheer scale of the Sunshine State is hard to comprehend for those of us from the southern states but one of the most revealing facts is that there is less distance between Melbourne and Brisbane than between Brisbane and Cairns.
Therefore, North Queensland should be the first (but certainly not the last) new Australian State of the 21st century. For this to occur, however, the clincher within the Constitution is obviously “the consent of the parliament thereof.” The ALP is sympathetic to local governments but is a centralist beast by nature. Therefore, the task will likely fall to an LNP government to initiate this new State. The support of the federal branch of the Party is obviously very important to its success. When Queensland will lead, other states will follow; it is not just a big State in size! It would be likely that growing populations in regional areas of other States (far removed from their capital city) would be able to see the model to follow.
I am not the first person to advocate this arrangement and I won’t be the last. New States will make governments more regional and this will be a good thing. It is said that “all politics is local.” Political authority and representation that is more local (i.e. closer to the people) is an outcome that is the ideal of all decentralists. The founding fathers of our nation had much wisdom in the way they drafted the Constitution and it is clear in the chapters that they saved the best for last, even if it is now the case in Australian politics that the first (State/colonial governments) have become the last. New States that are truly representative of regions in Australia will strengthen the position and legitimacy of all States, something that will undoubtedly be healthy for our country and our democracy.
Paul McCormack is a high school teacher in Wagga Wagga. He writes exclusively for Menzies House.