The states we’re in - Page 2
From Griffith REVIEW Edition 19: Re-imagining Australia
© Copyright Griffith University & the author.
Written by AJ Brown
IMAGINING A GRAND, EXPANDING federal future for Australia was not dead. And in the 1880s and 1890s, when colonial politicians began to finally respond to domestic political pressure for national governance, the American model again provided the key. Those who wonder how Sir Henry Parkes managed to trigger a popular movement in 1889 need look no further than his images of America's economic and political growth. Just like the ‘great commonwealth' across the Pacific, Parkes told his famous audiences an Australian commonwealth could be ‘great and growing'.
Here again was not only a political vision but an economic and social one. Even in the 1880s, the London Times had greeted the interim step of a Federal Council of Australasia as representing ‘legislation for a future nation of fifty millions'. In 1887, one of Australia's greatest federalists and nationalists, Sir Samuel Griffith, linked political development with economic destiny, seeing a continent ‘which although not now fully occupied, will, ‘ere long I trust be fully occupied by her Majesty's subjects' – once again, a blank map filled with farmers, miners, industry and British civilisation.
Once again, both the demographic reality of Australia and this expanding vision called for an alternative structure. The federalists knew it. Post-colonial Australia had many more discrete regions – economic, political, cultural – than official colonies. Australian federation again became associated with support for an American-style destiny, subdividing territory and increasing the number of federal states. The idea was written into the Constitution, where Chapter VI provides for their creation and admission.
This movement carried on, with peaks of agitation for new states in the 1920s, 1950s and 1960s. Utopianism often separates from reality. The concept of Australia Subdivided, written by the founding Country Party leader Earle Page in 1920, was infected with visions of boundless economic growth such as those conveyed two years before in E.J. Brady's famous book, Australia Unlimited.
Yet even by the 1920s, the reality of Australia as a largely dry, ancient, ecologically fragile landscape conflicted with these popular plans. By the 1950s, the economic outlook was dominated by the growth of the modern welfare state, with big development supported by the alignment of big government, business and unions. While such visions were no more ecologically sustainable than those that preceded them, this industrial outlook left little room for ‘new state' fragmentation. As the political scientist R.S. Parker declared in 1955, it was ‘very questionable whether the creation of new states ... would not exacerbate more of the problems of federalism than it solved'.
Here then, in post-colonial Australia, another different vision was becoming clear. The original logic of each colony (or state) as a largely autonomous economy, independently feeding unlimited streams of resources and products into world markets, had withered and died with the imperial decline. By the 1980s it was under further assault from globalisation, by the 1990s the full reality of the continent's ecological fragility, and in the twenty-first century the implications of a rapidly changing climate. In 2001 Australians celebrated their Centenary of Federation as a great achievement, but simultaneously knew that – far from any longer a recipe for growth and development – being a federation was now a great ‘problem' of Australian governance.
AUSTRALIANS' DIFFICULTY WITH FEDERALISM in principle is not, in fact, only a product of the modern era. On one hand it was always viewed as necessary for uniting the six colonies, and hopefully delivering more from Kalgoorlie to Cairns. But federalism was also set to run into difficulty if not able to deliver a properly capable national government. Even in the 1890s, Anglo-Australians wanted to be a nation, but not necessarily preserve the colonial autonomies implied by an American-style constitution. After all, the world's greatest nation was still Britain, its ‘united kingdom' forged not from a ‘federation' but a ‘unification' of the separate countries of England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales. Even if ‘federal', a true British nation still surely must have one supreme parliament and sovereign laws applying to all.
While some of Australia's great federalists knew the legal reality must protect the self-interests of colonial politicians, the message they used to mobilise the public opinion drew directly from this parallel vision of true British ‘unification'. This was not just in the dominant colonies of New South Wales or Victoria, where it might be expected. The rhetoric of unification was used heavily in the outlying states, even though it implied a disappearance of state cultural and legal differences. In Western Australia, Sir John Forrest argued for a union that would overcome such ‘imaginary lines'.
The same words were used in Queensland by Griffith, and became fundamental to the powerful concept of ‘a nation for a continent and a continent for a nation'. This idea is usually attributed to Edmund Barton, but was already ingrained in popular culture, as shown by Griffith as far back as 1891: ‘There must be one Australian sentiment, one Australian people, and that as it is one land surrounded by the sea, without any natural divisions, so it shall be one people with one destiny ... looking at the question from a merely geographical point of view ... the political unification of Australia is absolutely inevitable.'
So we came to have some more unresolved tensions in how Australians saw and experienced their new system of governance. The last thing many ordinary colonial electors imagined was that their new national parliament would not be able to legislate universally on the most important issues confronting the nation. The result was an attitude to federalism that one of its leading scholars, Brian Galligan, has called ‘schizophrenic', with deep internal conflicts and inconsistencies.
From the 1920s the High Court began to compensate for the limits of the Constitution by reading more into federal legislative powers than the colonial negotiators had intended, to match the governance needs of the new nation. In parallel, especially when the vision for new states did not begin to be realised, other populist visions of constitutional reform began to emerge. Perhaps federalism should be abandoned altogether, and state governments replaced with more ‘provincial' or regional governments, all within a properly ‘unified' – not federal – political structure.
In reality, constitutional diagnosis of these models would often show them to still be federal in nature, a different federalism based on Canada rather than the perceived American model. Hallmarks of these alternatives were widespread. They dominated the Australian Labor Party's policy platform from 1920 until the 1960s. When the conservative federal government appointed a royal commission on the Constitution in 1927-29, even its business representative, T.R. Ashworth, sided with Labor and the union representative to push for federation to be superseded by this kind of unification.