Thawing the frozen continent
From Griffith REVIEW Edition 19: Re-imagining Australia
© Copyright Griffith University & the author.
Written by George Williams
Download the complete article PDF
George Williams' biography and other articles by this writer
Australia's system of government has passed its use-by date in too many respects. The federal arrangements are dysfunctional, ministerial responsibility has broken down and the system fails to adequately protect fundamental rights and freedoms. Too many of the processes that made sense when Australia became a nation are now antiquated and ineffective, and as a consequence many of the rules of our democracy are second rate.
Australia was regarded as a leading innovator and moderniser in 1901, but the tag has long since slipped. We lag behind many other countries and are now seen as having one of the most static systems of government in the world. The progression to this point has been gradual. The cause of our predicament is not a series of false steps, but inaction. We have failed to sufficiently update and improve the good system of government we gained more than a century ago. It is as if, having built Australia on the foundation of a new constitution in 1901, the task finished and there was no need for renovation. Without coups, revolutions or other social and political upheaval, we have been happy to leave things be and focus on other priorities.
Renovation may be a national preoccupation, but it stops at the front door. We have forgotten that, like any home, a system of government can fall into disrepair. The democratic project is never finished, the long-term health of a democracy demands ongoing engagement. Such reform is vital to ensure that subsequent generations have faith in the system of government, and that it remains relevant and as good as possible. Without this, popular support can weaken over time and with it the legitimacy of the democratic structure. These issues require a contemporary commitment to nation-building. While the focus has been on economic reform and grand achievements of infrastructure, like the Snowy Mountains Scheme, and population, with immigration, we have not paid sufficient attention to other big-picture issues: like how power can best be exercised.
These matters affect Australia's future. Government can improve or diminish fairness, social justice, social cohesion and economic progress. While these issues depend on who we elect, they are also shaped in fundamental and often unseen ways by the power we grant leaders and the checks and balances that limit them. As Gough Whitlam wrote in 1970 in On Australia's Constitution (Widescope), ‘Existing constitutional arrangements do not provide an adequate, far less an ideal, framework for the solution of contemporary problems. We are entering the future mounted on a penny-farthing bicycle.'
Australia has a system of government that too often impedes, rather than facilitates prosperity and progress. The political rhetoric hints at the problem, but rarely acknowledges the very high cost of not reforming the architecture of government – the price of the broken federal system alone is billions of dollars wasted every year. It is impossible to estimate the full cost, as inefficiencies multiply it in the private sector and across the community. The impact can be felt throughout society – poorly designed policies and laws reduce standards of services like health and education. It provokes expensive battles for control between the Commonwealth and the states, and binds some of the biggest challenges facing the nation in red tape. It can also cause inaction when no government accepts responsibility.
Addressing this is not for the timid, but failing to address it will store up problems that will rebound electorally. The fact of Labor governments from coast to coast presents an historic opportunity to reform the system of governance without distracting partisan squabbles. Not to grasp this opportunity would be to squander a once-in-a-century political opening to develop a political framework that will serve Australia well into the next century – one which will be profoundly different from the last.
I am not railing against all aspects of our system. There is much to be proud of in our political traditions and rules of government. Australia is one of the oldest continuous democracies in the world with a constitution that holds up well against many others. Nonetheless, we rest too often and too much on past achievements. We have not followed up the initial good work by ensuring the system is kept up to date.
Certainly not all the poor decisions made by governments are due to underlying rules and processes, and I am not saying that if these problems were fixed governments would always operate like well-oiled machines. It is possible, though, to say that many problems are due to structural questions about how we are governed and that many adverse consequences and extra costs could be avoided if they were addressed. It is hard enough even for a government with the best leadership to operate effectively, let alone when the rules by which it must run are skewed towards inefficiency, or even injustice.