Shortcuts / 13 May 2020

The Federation

With the coronavirus crisis requiring a coordinated response between the federal government and our states and territories we take a step back and look at how the federation operates. In this episode we focus on its formation, we talk you through how responsibilities are split, the structures that have been put in place to coordinate those responsibilities as well as how some of it has been rethought recently.

What is the Federation?

Federation happened on 1 January, 1901, when New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, South Australia, Western Australia and Tasmania came together to form the Commonwealth of Australia.

What did things look like before Federation?

Before Federation, those six colonies were self-governing colonies of Britain. As such, each was subject to the authority of the British government but they had their own government, laws and defence forces, and each collected taxes on goods that crossed their borders.

What about the Northern Territory and the ACT?

When Federation occured, the ACT was just twinkle in our nation’s eye. It wasn’t created until some years later when Canberra was picked as the capital. The NT was part of the colony of NSW from 1825 to 1863 except for 1846 when there was a short-lived colony called Northern Australia. It was then administered by South Australia from 1863 to 1911. So it was a decade after Federation that it was separated from SA and transferred to federal control.

What did Fiji and New Zealand have to do with it?

NZ had participated in Australian colonial conferences since the 1860s but ultimately decided against joining the Federation as a state. And over the years there have been plenty of proposals for our Pacific neighbours to join our nation including Papua New Guinea and Fiji.

Why did Federation happen?

It didn’t happen quickly. The 1800s saw federations become cemented in US and Canada. But here, the movement was stunted by the smaller colonies who didn’t much like the idea of delegating power to a national government as they feared they might be dominated by the larger colonies of NSW and Victoria. But over time, nationalism and anti-immigration sentiment grew, especially during the Gold Rush in the mid-1800s, which brought with it many Chinese immigrants. This led to calls for a national government that had the power to make stronger immigration laws. In addition to this, colonists started to agree that a national government would be handy to deal with issues such as trade and defence, as well as immigration as you say.

When did the public come around to the idea?

Over time of course. But as far as a landmark moment, that came when the Premier of NSW, Sir Henry Parkes delivered the ‘Tenterfield Address’. That speech called for a “Great national government for all Australians”. And that really was the first time the public had been appealed to on the matter and provided a lot of momentum for the change. The location of that speech – in Tenterfield, is also important. It is a NSW town but is situated close to the Queensland border. Towns there were having to pay taxes on goods sent over the border so were therefore more supportive of federation and the free trade it would bring about.

How were responsibilities split between the federal government and the states and territories?

That all comes back to the constitution which to summarise, gave the the Commonwealth power to legislate on areas that concerned the nation as a whole – so things like trade, taxation, immigration, defence, foreign affairs, marriage and divorce and postal and telecommunications services. The state governments were to look after things around the delivery of like education, state policing and criminal law, healthcare, transport, and local government. So broadly, the federal government raises most of the taxes – about 80% in total through income tax, company tax, GST etc. – but the states deliver services and law and order.

How are responsibilities of the federal government and the states and territories split during COVID-19?

When we look at whats happening now with the coronavirus crisis, it is the federal government that provides the money to bail us out, through schemes like JobKeeper. But because the states and territories are responsible for law and order, their borders, sports, and schools, it falls on them in a crisis like this to make the call about what their citizens should do. They are the boots on the ground so to speak. And because each state and territory has a different set of circumstances to deal with, it’s up to them to go as fast or as slow as their government’s see fit.

What is the Council of Australian Governments (COAG)?

In 1992, a forum was created where the federal government, the states and territories would come together to discuss the areas where they have to work together and that’s the Council of Australian Governments, or COAG. Its aim was to bring the governments together to manage matters of national importance that require coordinated action. For example, COAG has played an important role in implementing policy reforms in areas including education and training, microeconomic reform, early childhood development and Indigenous policy reform.

What are some criticisms of COAG?

While COAG has achieved a number of things, there has recently been some criticism of COAG, some saying it is too bureaucratic, and that change doesn’t happen quickly enough. The leaders meet a couple of times a year and the policy areas like health and education are broken up into various councils, but these can be tricky issues that they’re dealing with, and nothing every moves quickly enough for people who want to see change.

What’s the National Cabinet?

COAG has almost been pushed to the side during this coronavirus crisis by a new meeting of the federal and state leaders, called the National Cabinet. PM Scott Morrison announced its formation back in March. It is a special intergovernmental decision-making forum that’s brought together the nations political leaders a couple of times a week. What its is intended to do is to help coordinate a national response to the COVID-19 pandemic but importantly, it designed to make decision quickly. The arrangement has been praised by all involved in dealing with the coronavirus crisis. But one criticism from observers has been that the there’s been no clear message come out of the National Cabinet on things like the coronavirus social restrictions. That’s because the shoe is on the other foot when it comes to who hold the power in implementing a response to the crisis. It’s up to the states and territories to determine the pace at which they ramp up or relax restrictions based on the conditions they face. And that means there’s no real national consistency, and some people have complained about that being confusing. But that’s our federation for you.

There have been talks about making the National Cabinet a more permanent fixture… would this make COAG irrelevant?

The Prime Minister himself has said that the National Cabinet had made the federation “more responsive and more co-ordinated than we’ve seen in many years”. But these are special circumstances and many observers think that when the crisis has passed, it will be back to the way things operated before. But let’s hope the goodwill and relationships that have been forged in these times last.

And what about broader reforms to our constitution to revamp the federation?

This is something that comes up from time to time, but no federal leader has been willing to burn their political capital on unpicking the foundations of our system of government.

Squiz Recommends:
The Federation – Parliamentary Education Office
Henry Parkes “Tenterfield Address”

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