Reforms to federalism in Australia have been suggested due to a belief that it is not a source of effective government. Duplication of services, excessive bureaucracy and administration, and confusion around the roles and responsibilities of the Commonwealth and State governments have been some of the key drivers in the calls for reform. Wanna (2007) reported on a roundtable discussion of federalism in Australia that posed the question of federalism being a ‘malaise’.
This essay from a public service Manager will focus on the challenges associated with federalism which have precipitated a negative view of the system of government in Australia. It will then argue that cooperative federalism is currently at work across levels of government and proving to be a source of effective government. Challenges and obstacles
The lack of clarity around the powers conferred to the Commonwealth and the States through the Constitution has led to confusion in the functions, or roles and responsibilities, throughout the different levels of government. The framers of the Constitution wanted to create a national government with restricted powers so as to keep their own areas of responsibility (Singleton et al. 2006:31). Painter (1998) insists that duplication across government has occurred even though the Constitution favours the Commonwealth in these instances.
Duplication of services has been identified as an area of concern for all levels of government. Summers (2006) argues that High Court decisions favouring the Commonwealth, particularly during the Whitlam administration, assisted in the duplication of services by allowing the federal government to delve into areas of state responsibilities like education and health. The ‘Policy Roundtable on Federalism’ summarised by Wanna (2007:279) highlighted the need to reduce ‘the proliferation of parallel or similar departments’.
High Court decisions such as the Engineers case and Uniform Tax case have combined to erode traditional state responsibilities in regard to industrial relations and income tax (Summers 2006). Judicial decisions such as these have led to an imbalance in the financial relations between the tiers of government in favour of the Commonwealth. Althaus & Tiernan (2005) noted the vertical fiscal imbalance created was a frustration for the States.
Policy negotiations between and across the levels of government have contributed a further set of complications according to O’Faircheallaigh et al. (1997:97). This is supported by Althaus & Tiernan (2005:189-190) where intergovernmental negotiations can be seen as a ‘game’ and disagreements can occur due to the financial power held by the Commonwealth.
Mechanisms of cooperative federalism
In an address to the National Press Club on 19 July 1990 then Prime Minister Bob Hawke announced an initiative referred to as ‘new federalism’. The initiative was seeking the three tiers of government to work in closer partnership by addressing ‘sensible, practicable steps to get better cooperation within the framework of the Federal Constitution as it stands’ (Parliament of Australia: 2001).
In a move towards strengthening cooperation between Commonwealth and state governments, the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) was formed in 1992. This occurred as result of a series of Special Premiers Conferences that began in 1990 (Parkin & Anderson 2008). According to Twomey and Withers (2007) COAG was established to initiate reform through national cooperation. COAG has more recently been ‘reinvigorated’ with the ‘opportunity…to take major steps forward for the Australian community’ (Althuas & Tiernan 2009:191).
Twomey (2007:216) believes that major cooperation between the Commonwealth and States in varying areas, is occurring without the knowledge of many Australians. An example of such cooperation is the National Competition Policy which was agreed to in