Federalism debate overlaid by ignorance

Profile view of George Williams head with blurred yellow and red background.
Ignorance is undermining debate about federalism, according to Professor George Williams.

Ignorance and defeatism are overshadowing the debate on federalism in Australia, a leading constitutional lawyer has told a Brisbane symposium.

“When it comes to Australia’s system of government, the general community is, by and large, woefully ignorant,” Professor George Williams, University of New South Wales, said.

“It is clear that the community knows little and understands less about Australia’s federal system.

“This extends well beyond the community. Media reporting of federal issues can often be shallow, and my experience is that few politicians have a sound grasp of the fundamentals.”

Professor Williams said it was not surprising that public debate about federal reform was often driven by simplistic slogans and superficial thinking.

He was among a group of Australia’s leading academic experts on federalism who linked up with government officials for the Sir Samuel Griffith Symposium on Australia’s Federal Future.

The symposium, run by Australia and New Zealand School of Government (ANZSOG) and hosted by Griffith University, examined the federation as it functions today and investigated the need for and potential implementation of reform.

A summary paper will be developed by ANZSOG and Griffith University capturing key insights about reform needs and opportunities. This will inform a broader discussion of federalism at a follow-up event, the inaugural Sir Samuel Griffith Forum later in the year.

Professor Williams presented a plenary session on the strengths and weaknesses of the Australian Federation at Friday’s symposium. It was also addressed by Professor Gary Banks, Dean of ANZSOG; Justin Hanney, Deputy Secretary, Victorian Department of the Premier; Professor Jonathan Pincus, University of Adelaide; Professor Andrew Lynch, University of New South Wales; and Jenny Menzies, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, Griffith University.

Ms Menzies, from Griffith’s Centre for Governance and Public Policy, discussed “the trouble with COAG” and explored the potential institutionalising of what is “the pinnacle of national decision-making”.

“As a recognised institution, COAG could establish the roles and responsibilities of the parties involved and also establish a long-term agenda for reform to counteract the turnover of Premiers and government officials from COAG meeting to COAG meeting.

“This would bring sustained thinking to the arena and improve structure and strengthen implementation of inter-government agreements.”

Senior officials from Queensland, NSW, South Australia, Tasmania, Northern Territory and the Department of the Prime Minister took part in a session behind closed doors on Friday afternoon when ideas and proposals emanating from the earlier session were drawn out and built on.

Experience the New Griffith at Open Day 2013 on August 11 (9am-2pm).