Australian federalism changing but constitution lags

Prof. Graham Sansom speaks to a noon-time audience at the Forum’s office

The federal system of Australia has changed more in the past six months than it has in years.

That trend was documented by Prof. Graham Sansom of the Centre for Local Government of the University of Technology Sydney in a luncheon presentation at the Forum of Federations in Ottawa to staff from several embassies, the Canadian government and Ottawa universities.

In areas where states and the central government share powers, there had been a lack of agreement in recent years on how to proceed on many issues, from climate change to the sharing of water resources.

In the past six months, things have begun to change. Kevin Rudd’s new Labour government promised to end the "blame game” that has characterized Australian federalism. One sign of this change is the fact that the Council of the Australian Governments (COAG), an intergovernmental body composed of the six state premiers, territory chief ministers, the prime minister and the head of the Australian Local Government Association, has met three times since December 2007.

Especially useful for intergovernmental co-operation are the 40 ministerial councils or "Mincos”, consisting of the ministers responsible for a particular policy area. They consist of ministers from the states, territories and central government concerned with particular subjects. The councils can initiate, develop and monitor policy reform jointly in these areas, and then take joint action to resolve certain issues.

Since the new federal government was elected, the Mincos were strengthened and a new Minco on health and aging was established. After the July COAG meeting, new policies on business regulation and consumer affairs were announced, and some believe that current changes are more far-reaching than the national competition policy reforms of the 1990s.

In April 2008, the Rudd government created Infrastructure Australia, an agency with an initial $20 million budget, to bring together the central government, states, municipalities and the private sector for planning and implementing renewal in Australia’s transportation, communication and rural and urban public services sectors. This tiny budget can only begin the process of infrastructure renewal, however. The rest will depend on funding from the states, municipalities and the central government.

Unlike some other federations, Australia’s states raise less of their own revenues than municipalities. Australian cities and towns raise 80 per cent of their expenditures, while the six states are dependent on the central government for 50 per cent of their budgets.

All the changes so far have been in ordinary legislation or in the practice of intergovernmental relations. However, the municipalities are preparing a process that could lead to a referendum to recognize the municipalities in the Australian constitution.

Prof. Samson made his presentation on Sept. 5, 2008.

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