Australia’s state governments should be leading the way on reform of the federal system, but the jury is out on whether they will seize the chance, according to one of Australia’s top federalism experts.

Releasing new analysis from the Australian Constitutional Values Survey, Professor A J Brown of Griffith University’s Centre for Governance and Public Policy, said that 50 per cent of citizens believed their state government had a “good understanding of what’s in the national interest” — but big variations between states show the need for them to pull together if there is to be real change.

The highest rate of citizens believing their state government had a “good understanding” of the national interest were Western Australia (68 per cent), South Australia (55 per cent) and Victoria (54 per cent). The lowest were NSW (43 per cent) and Tasmania (34 per cent). Queensland is closest to the middle on 45 per cent.

The findings are contained in a paper, ‘Australia’s Federal Future: The People’s View’, prepared for this Wednesday’s Sir Samuel Griffith Forum on the future of the federation.

Griffith University Vice Chancellor Professor Ian O’Connor will deliver the forum’s official welcome at Parliament House in Brisbane, with Queensland Premier Campbell Newman presenting the opening address.

The Sir Samuel Griffith Series, organised by Griffith’s Centre for Governance and Public Policy and ANZSOG, aims to promote discussion and debate about Australia’s Federal Future.

The Griffith Forum comes as the Abbott Government launches a new review of federal-state relations through the National Commission of Audit, and a proposed green paper and white paper on federal reform.

In July more than 30 participants with expertise in government, federalism and constitutionalism took part in a Brisbane symposium, which identified key drivers for reform. This will inform broader discussion of federalism at Wednesday’s forum.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott has previously described reform of the federation as ‘Australia’s biggest political problem.’

Professor Brown’s paper reviews results from the first three Constitutional Values Surveys, conducted in 2008, 2010 and 2012. Results from the first survey were cited by Tony Abbott in his 2009 book, Battlelines.

The next surveys will be conducted in 2014 and 2016, under a new $700,000 Australian Research Council grant awarded to Professor Brown’s team last week.

“Between 2008 and 2012, we know that what Australians are seeking from their federal political system hasn’t changed, but confidence in the system is in decline,” Professor Brown said.

“Even though two-thirds of adult Australians can be classed as federalist, between two-thirds and three-quarters believe the system should be structurally reformed.

“There is strong public support for the need to review the roles and responsibilities of national, state and local government — as well as what should be devolved to the regional level,” Professor Brown said.

“Citizen judgments about the federation also show that we need to invest in improved machinery of intergovernmental collaboration.

“However, big differences in the perceived capacity of different states to engage in this national debate show why a strong, concerted effort is needed.

“The Queensland Government is currently leading the way on this discussion, and the Victorian Government has also shown strong national leadership in the past.

“The question is whether all states and all levels of government can engage in a thorough, comprehensive overhaul that will stand the test of time — much like the original process of Federation itself,” Professor Brown concluded.

READ Australia’s Federal Future: The People’s View by Professor AJ Brown here. The new results cited above are located in Table 7.