Tunnelling under federalism principles

Robert Carling

10 May 2019 | Ideas@TheCentre

As an election campaign issue, federalism doesn’t rate a mention. But commitments are being made in the campaign that disregards the principles of federalism and undermines its foundations more than ever before. We should all be concerned about this abuse.

At the local level, myriad small grants are on offer for security cameras, ovals and other local public goods that have nothing to do with the federal government’s constitutional responsibilities.

In the hotly contested seat of Warringah— where former PM Tony Abbott is facing off against high-profile independent Zali Steggall — a proposed road tunnel is a major issue even though it is entirely the prerogative of the state government.

The victor in Warringah will have no say in the matter, in whatever capacity they sit in the federal parliament. The federal government may overstep its proper role and make a financial contribution, but it will not determine whether the project goes ahead or not.

On a larger scale, there are promises of extra money for schools and the greater federal intrusion into state policy that goes with it.

One reason the disregard for federalism has come so far is that election campaigns have degenerated into bidding wars for the median voter — in which the more chips the bidders have to use, the better for their purposes.
Another reason is that the federal government’s role has become so far-reaching after decades of creeping centralism that federal politicians act as if there is no voter grievance and no problem beyond Canberra’s capacity to resolve — and the voters have been conditioned to go along with the act.
We should be concerned that the foundations of federalism are being undermined in these ways. Our democratic system will work better if the principles of federalism are respected. Clear boundary lines between the functions of different levels of government and avoidance of duplication and overlap are not merely a fetish for neatness.

Under properly functioning federalism, voters know who to hold to account, politicians can’t buck-pass, and choices are made by the level of government best able to make them.

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