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If we scrapped the states, increasing Canberra’s clout would be a backward step

Choosing Cairns or Townsville as a northern Queensland capital would set off a political storm, as would new regional governments around Australia. Dan Peled/AAP

If we scrapped the states, increasing Canberra’s clout would be a backward step

Choosing Cairns or Townsville as a northern Queensland capital would set off a political storm, as would new regional governments around Australia. Dan Peled/AAP

If you were starting Australia all over again, you would have a national government and 20 regional governments. That was one of the things I agreed with Gough Whitlam on. … Anything that can reduce or end the duplication between Commonwealth, state and local governments is a good idea. – John Winston Howard (quoted in The Weekend Australian, November 9, 1991)

One of the hardy perennials of Australian politics is the claim that the states are obsolete and should be done away with. This view has adherents on all sides of politics, particularly those in the Commonwealth government with long and frustrating experience of dealing with the states. The latest call has come, not for the first time, from former prime minister Bob Hawke.

On the face of it, abolition of the states would imply a highly centralised system in which the powers of the states were transferred to the Commonwealth. However, few proponents of state abolition accept this implication. Instead, it is argued, the three-tier system of federal, state and local governments could be replaced by a two-tier system with 20 or so regional governments, with a resulting reduction in the number of politicians and bureaucrats.

This idea sounds appealing enough in the abstract, which is how it is normally presented. In practice, however, it is necessary to define regions with natural boundaries.

How would the political map be redrawn?

It is obvious, at a minimum, that each existing state and territory capital must have its own region. Also, Geelong clearly belongs with Melbourne, Wollongong, Newcastle and Gosford with Sydney, and the Southeast Queensland region (Gold Coast, Sunshine Coast and Toowoomba) with Brisbane.

At this point, only a few urban centres with populations in the vicinity of 100,000 are left — Townsville and Cairns in Queensland, and Ballarat and Bendigo in Victoria.

Geographically speaking, Townsville and Cairns could form the core of a natural northern region, including Mackay, Charters Towers and Rockhampton. Unfortunately, the two cities are such bitter rivals that even the name of the putative region (North Queensland versus Far North Queensland) would be a source of civil strife. Rather than be governed by the other, either city would prefer to be ruled from Brisbane or Canberra.

The problem with Tasmania is the opposite. In practice, Tasmania is already divided into two parts. These have separate newspapers, breweries and educational institutions, not to mention attitudes.

Although Hobart is the seat of government, the northern coast, including Launceston, Burnie and Devonport, has half the population and most of the growth prospects. Far from strengthening regional diversity, the formal division of the state into two regions would simply strengthen the north at the expense of the south.

Suppose, however, that we allow North Queensland and Northern Tasmania as regions. The ten regions described so far include urban centres accounting for more than 75% of Australia’s population. When their immediate hinterland is taken into account, the figure is probably between 85% and 90%.

The concentration of Australians in the big urban centres – font sizes of place names are scaled here in line with populations – presents problems for creating representative regional governments. shutterstock

What about the rest of Australia?

It is simply nonsense to suggest that the remaining 2-3 million people could be divided up into ten sustainable regions, as the 20-region idea would suggest.

The whole of Western Australia outside Perth has barely half a million people. South Australia outside Adelaide has fewer than 400,000. Road, rail and air transport networks all radiate from Adelaide and Perth. Any regional government formed in these states would have little option but to base its operations in the existing state capital.

Superficially, the prospects for regionalism look better in the eastern states. New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland each have well over a million people living outside the metropolitan conurbations. But the prospects are superficial indeed.

The biggest provincial centres in the Melbourne sphere of influence are Ballarat, Bendigo, the Latrobe Valley and Wodonga (usually lumped with its NSW twin, Albury). Ballarat and Bendigo are close neighbours, but the other centres have little in common except that they are not Melbourne. The same is true of Bathurst-Orange, Coffs Harbour and Wagga in NSW.

Jeff Kennett lost office in Victoria to a revolt by non-metropolitan voters, who might not be better off if the current states are abolished. Julian Smith/AAP

Rural and regional Australians feel neglected by governments based in faraway coastal cities, and often with good reason. But under the current system, country voters frequently exercise the balance of power and can punish governments that are too focused on the interests of the metropolis. Jeff Kennett found this out to his cost as Victorian premier in 1999.

In a system of regional governments, this influence would be lost. The regions would still depend on the former capitals for transport hubs, teaching hospitals, major universities and a host of other services, but would no longer have any political leverage over them.

In dealings between say, a government of Northwestern New South Wales and a government of Greater Sydney, it is not hard to imagine who would lose out.

Beware the unitary state

The only way the system could be made to work is if the federal government stepped in to level the playing field. In practice, the Commonwealth would assume all the powers of the former states and the regional governments would be glorified shire councils.

The result would be a unitary state, easily the largest in the world by area and almost certainly one of the most fractious. Decisions on matters like bus services and housing developments in say, Brisbane, would be made by bureaucrats in Canberra and ministers whose electorates might be in Perth.

Voters who already view Canberra as remote and distant would become even more even more hostile when every rail breakdown and hospital mishap could be blamed on that faraway city.

And, although the states would be gone, the geographical realities they represent would not. The fights we now see at meetings of the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) would be played out within the national government.

The allocation of ministries such as health and education between the former states would be a matter of vital concern. State-based factions would become even more important than they are now.

The desire for uniformity, which is central to the argument for unitary government, would run into the reality that conditions in a country as large as Australia are incredibly diverse.

To take a trivial example, nearly all existing unitary governments are confined to a single time zone. The need to co-ordinate every aspect of public policy with a government in a different time zone would increase the alienation already felt in places like Adelaide and Perth.

The push for regional government may be unsuited to Australian conditions, but it is at least consistent with the general tendency around the world towards subsidiarity – that is, allowing decisions specific to a particular group of people to be made, as far as possible, by those people.

Previously unitary states like the UK and even France have devolved much of their formerly centralised power. A shift by Australia towards a unitary government, motivated by such trivial concerns as the desire for uniformity and administrative cost savings, would be a retrograde step.