‘Broken’ federal system needs leadership

Professor George Williams delivering speech at lectern.
Federal reform should be a priority for the government, says Professor George Williams.

One of Australia’s leading constitutional lawyers has called on the new Abbott government to make federal reform a priority.

Professor George Williams from the University of New South Wales says the absence of policies is now a major hindrance to Australia realising its federal potential.

Professor Williams has also renewed a proposal to establish an expert research body to develop and drive federal reform policy.

“We need to plan for a federal system that performs better than the one we are heading to, which is one in which the states continue to drift into irrelevance and unsustainability,” he said.

“This is a path that will miss out on many of the benefits that our federal system could offer.”

Professor Williams made his comments in the first of five papers to be published as part of the Sir Samuel Griffith Series on Australia’s Federal Future.

READ Professor Williams’ paper on Australia’s Federal Future here.

“We are unfortunately at a point where our leaders are more than willing to acknowledge that Australia’s federal system is broken, with Tony Abbott for example describing it as ‘Australia’s biggest political problem’, but are not in a position to offer ideas or solutions.

“It can only be hoped that the new federal coalition government’s White Paper on federalism will provide welcome leadership in this regard.

“Australia is exposed by its lack of institutional support for federal reform at a time when a broader reform agenda needs to be fleshed out. How can there be effective federal reform unless people are developing the policies and ideas that will drive it?”

The Sir Samuel Griffith Series aims to promote discussion and debate about Australia’s Federal Future. It opened in July when more than 30 participants with expertise in government, federalism and constitutional took part in a Brisbane symposium.

A summary paper identifying five key drivers for reform will be published in the lead-up to the Sir Samuel Griffith Forum, to be hosted by ANZSOG and Griffith University on November 20.

“The federalism question has effectively come down to whether new federal policy initiatives are in the national interest,” Professor Williams said.

“The concept is almost completely uninformed by questions of good governance and federal design. Australia has become a much more centralised nation, but it is an unthinking, unconsidered centralism.

“Public debate is overlaid with ignorance and defeatism and is often driven by simplistic slogans and superficial thinking. Such views are a product of our education system and the media, but also of a lack of vision and leadership by our politicians.”

Professor Williams also pointed to an Australian economy that would welcome a boost to productivity and competition.

“On certain occasions, the national interest will be better served by diversity between jurisdictions and robust competition between states and regulatory regimes.

“Yet, these concepts are rarely reflected in the Australian debate. We value competition highly elsewhere, but in the area of federalism, multiple centres of power and regulation are often equated with inefficiency and the waste of public money.”