Who is responsible for the elephant in the room? An argument for federalism

The State premiers and Prime Minister, Julia Gillard meet at the Council of Australian Governments (AAP/Alan Porritt)

There is an old joke in Canada, one that every university student is told early in the Introduction to Politics class. It goes like this: three students - one British, one French, and a Canadian - are asked to write an essay about elephants. The British student pens “Elephants: A Tale of Empire.” The French student writes, “Elephants: A Love Story.” Finally, the Canadian writes, “Elephants: Federal or Provincial Responsibility?”

So it goes in Canada; federalism dominates every aspect of our political lives. In Australia, by contrast, federalism barely gets a mention even though it is at the core of how Australia’s democracy works.

Federalism in Australia

In federal systems like Australia, sovereignty is constitutionally divided between two levels of government. This means that neither level of government, Commonwealth nor the States, can claim to have sovereign authority. Each level receives its authority from the constitution, and thus is subordinate to it.

The constitution gives legal jurisdiction over national matters to the Commonwealth, and local matters to the States. The critical point, however, is that neither level of government is subordinate to the other. In unitary systems, like Britain, power flows from the centre out; in a federal system power is constitutionally divided.

Is federalism anti-democratic?

Because of this divided power, most critics would consider Australian federalism as working against democracy. States interfere with the will of the national majority goes a common refrain. Others whisper “if the states simply disappeared, who would notice”?

In a vision of democracy where a single national majority determines a “collective” future, federalism could certainly be viewed as less than the democratic ideal. As if to illustrate, the political philosopher Lord Acton once observed, “[federalism] is a true natural check on absolute democracy.”

A federal view of democracy promotes one of multiple identities and “coop-etition” between the governing partners.

The quasi-market nature of federal societies, encourages competition between states for people and investment. Because state governments are geographically fixed, and people and capital are decidedly not, federalism encourages competition between states for people and investment.

When governments compete for scarce resources, the people have choice. When the people have choice, their liberty is enhanced.

Simply put, when each state takes stock of the diversity of interests, different approaches to policy may be taken. Those policy initiatives that seem to be successful can be emulated in other states, while policy failures are contained to one state rather than being inflicted on the entire nation.

Spread the power

Australian federalism also emphasises an additional set of democratic principles which go back to when the colonies drafted and ratified the constitution in the 1890s.

They were unwilling to suppress their established identities in favour of a new national one. Indeed, they insisted on a power-sharing arrangement based on the pre-existing democratic identities.

This type of power sharing arrangement increases opportunities for citizens to partake in the political process.

Federalism’s drawbacks

Yet, federal societies are not without fault. Indeed, critics of federalism remind us that they lead to bloated bureaucracy, and inefficiency of service delivery.

All of these criticisms are compounded by a “pass the buck” mentality, which allows governments to claim good outcomes and deny the bad.

These criticisms are valid, but they should not automatically result in federalism being dismissed as an unimportant part of democracy.

Federalism is still worthwhile

At their heart, federal societies are complex. They require a constitution with the various powers given to each level of government clearly set out.

Federalism is a system of divided loyalties. Australians are forced to confront the question of which government they think is most important.

I’ve suggested this confrontation of governments promotes both liberty and allows multiple identities. Who knows, one day the old Canadian joke may be amended: “Elephants: Commonwealth or State responsibility?”

It might just catch on.