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Perpetuating the Canberra reflex

Published in Government News (Canberra), 19 April 2010

In terms of its land mass, Australia is the sixth largest country on earth. The distances between the state capitals are enormous and travelling between places within the states by means other than air transport can take many hours.

Given these spatial characteristics, perhaps the most surprising feature of Australia’s political culture is what could be called ‘the Canberra reflex’. No problem is too local, no issue too miniscule that one could not find a pundit to argue that they would best be handled by the national government.

This is a worldview that regards local government as an incompetent nuisance and state governments as overblown bureaucracies. Only Canberra, such commentators believe, has the capacity to effectively deal with transport, housing, education or the health system. From this belief to calls for the abolition of Australia’s federal structure, it is just a small step.

Ironically, this view is often put forward by the same commentators who spend much of their time analysing the shortcomings of national policies. They would have no trouble explaining the problems of the green loans scheme, the pink batts program or the indigenous housing projects. Strangely enough, such insights would never stop them from calling for an even greater role for the Federal Government.

The Canberra reflex is the ironic tendency to call for national solutions for every conceivable local problem – regardless of the constant practical experience that Canberra rarely ever produces the equivalent of policy panaceas.

For decades we have been witnessing a march towards a unitary state. It is best expressed in the vertical fiscal imbalance that characterises Australia’s public finances.

Tax revenue is first bundled nationally only to be redistributed to lower tiers of government. Unsurprisingly, under such arrangements the national government tends to treat states and local communities as mere agents to implement its policies.

In a sense, the renewed discussions about constitutional recognition for local government are thus most welcome. For once, so it seems, the trend towards greater centralisation could be stopped. Instead of shifting more power towards the centre, a place for local government in the constitution could mark an attempt to decentralise.

Unfortunately, it is not clear at all whether this would actually be the result of such a proposal.

There are two problems with the push for constitutional recognition of local government. First, there is a danger that many Australians would not have the slightest idea about local government’s precise role. Sure, they would know that their council collects the rubbish and runs a library, but beyond this the precise function of local government is not understood widely. It is not even clear whether most people are aware that local government is currently absent from the Commonwealth constitution. Given this ignorance, the first task towards constitutional recognition would be to create greater awareness of the role of local government within the framework of Australia’s democracy.

Connected to this is a second problem: If voters were actually aware how weak local government is vis-à-vis the states and the Commonwealth, they would ask, quite correctly, why such a weak institution needed to be sanctioned in the constitution. Or at least they should ask whether the real problems of local government do not actually have much to do with its legal status.

Local government, if it was meant to play a more vital role in Australian public life, would deserve far more than some nice constitutional prose. In order to play a more vital role and to overcome the Canberra reflex, it should be given greater clarity over its functions and funding. “Funded centrally, run locally,” as the Prime Minister has proposed for health services, may sound good, but “funded locally, run locally” would surely be better. Why raise money on the ground, and then shift it to Canberra only to return it eventually to the communities?

Such questions have to be settled first before changes to the constitution should be considered. In any case, the Canberra reflex that has developed over decades will not go away by inserting a new clause into the constitution, desirable as this would be.

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