Australians face a crisis of confidence in their system of government unless political leaders put more effort into charting a more constructive future for the federal system, according to the latest results from the Constitutional Values Survey.

Conducted in 2008, 2010 and most recently in October 2012, the results were issued today (Saturday, November 17) by lead researcher Professor A J Brown of Griffith University’s Centre for Governance and Public Policy.

“Two-thirds of Australians (66%) do not believe federal and state governments are working well together,” Professor Brown said.

“Since 2008, there has been an 8% fall in confidence in intergovernmental collaboration, and a similar 8% rise in those believing the federal system as a whole is not working overall.”

Australians have a higher level of concern over federal-state cooperation than citizens in either the United States (55%) or Canada (58%), when their opinion was last measured in 2010.

Since 2008, the survey has also recorded a huge 21% fall in confidence in the federal level of government as the most effective at its job (down from 50% to 29%) — placing it neck and neck with local government as the most effective level (up from 20% to 30%).

State governments achieved only a 5% rise in support as most effective level (from 18 to 23%).

Faith in the federal system of government has continued to fall even in some states which have recently changed governments, with a 10% rise in NSW citizens who believe the system is not working overall since 2008.

“At the same time, however, strong support remains for the federal government to take the lead in sorting out important issues, for redistribution of public money from richer to poorer parts of Australia, and for reform of the system as a whole,” Professor Brown said.

“This declining faith in governments to secure a desired better future, suggests we are headed for a crisis of confidence unless greater political priority is once again given to issues of federal cooperation and longer term reform.”

“There are signs citizens are declaring a ‘plague on all your houses’ when it comes to confidence in the future of governance — with reduced faith in the federal level of government, they are being left with nowhere to turn.”

Reform initiatives

Short and medium term federal reform initiatives discussed in recent years, to which governments could commit, include:

– Creating a statutory base for the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) and the COAG Reform Council
– Minimum meetings and a permanent secretariat for COAG
– A national cooperation commission to boost, sustain and give transparency to higher quality intergovernmental decision-making
– Constitutional support for collaborative federalism
– A stronger system of local and regional government, possibly including constitutional recognition of local government
– Long-term review of the roles, responsibilities and resources of government at each level.

Other results

Thirty-seven per cent of Australians believe that local government needs more power, as against only 12% who believe that it needs less power.

“This result, combined with the fact that local government rates today — albeit barely — as the most effective level of government, may give some small hope for the prospects of achieving constitutional recognition of local government,” Professor Brown said.

Overall, two thirds of citizens (67%) continue to support a reformed federal system:

– A high 40% of citizens continue to support the creation of regional governments;
– 30% of Australians support abolition of the states — rising to 37% support in Queensland;
– Support for a four-tiered system (federal, state, regional, local) has risen from 12 to 15%;
– Support for the creation of more states in Australia remains static at 9%;
– Overall support for a reformed system has dropped slightly since 2010, but remains higher than in 2008.

“These results clearly suggest that citizens’ interests in seeing our federal system evolve and perform better, are not resolved simply by people voting to change either state or federal governments that they don’t like,” Professor Brown said.

“Australians are interested in real commitments towards longer term reform.”

The Australian Constitutional Values Survey was conducted nationally by Newspoll for Griffith University and the University of New South Wales. 1,219 respondents were interviewed between 24 September and 9 October 2012.

For a summary of the Australian Constitutional Values Survey results click here.