Essay

A vision beyond the blame game

THERE ARE THOSE who argue that the only way to improve the performance of government in Australia is the abolition of the states and the establishment of stronger regional councils. The reality is that no referendum to abolish the states will succeed within the next fifty years: the residents of Queensland, Western Australia, South Australia and Tasmania will not vote to abolish their states because of a concern for a Sydney-Melbourne domination of the resultant national government. (There is only an outside chance that this attitude may slowly change when Queensland is more populous than Victoria in the next twenty years.) A majority of people in a majority of states are required for constitutional change; faced with this reality, it is time to make the federation work more effectively.

If the current status quo of the federation is going to be in place for a majority of this century, then it is time for a National Constitutional Convention to realign the federation to clearly define the roles of both the Commonwealth and the states. This is how Australia can improve the operation of government.

Kevin Rudd has signalled the beginning of health reform with the states, but that is only the beginning. The scope of change that is required for efficient, effective government is much broader than health alone. Real reforms must clarify responsibilities and funding for education, service delivery, housing, water, infrastructure, planning, Aboriginal affairs, climate change – the list goes on. Health is not enough.

Australia has a choice: it can either wallow in the current uncertainties with the High Court providing glimpses of clarity; or it can seize the initiative and provide clarity using the same direct approach that our founding fathers pursued in the late nineteenth century. Our founding fathers were courageous about forming a nation. Now, self-interest is dictating timidness towards reform. The powerful spirit of our founders has been lost.

The premiers and territory leaders have already agreed to mutual recognition of qualifications and a carbon emissions scheme. A limited spirit for reform exists at a state level, but we need fresh thinking at the federal level to drive real reform of responsibilities and not just a power grab of state responsibilities, as has been the trend since Federation.

Real constitutional and organisational reform requires courage and fortitude, and some good old Aussie guts. It requires throwing away old prejudices and out-of-date thinking. It requires thinking about the best model to take Australia successfully through the minefields of the twenty-first century. It will require political parties to put aside political self-interests and put the national interest first. The rapidly changing world does not owe us a living. The emerging new economic powers, including China, India, Russia and Brazil, will not wait for us. We need a system of government that can rapidly embrace the challenges of this century and tackle them head on.

 

THE BEST MODEL to take this relatively small nation of twenty-one million people forward and make it successful for the rest of this century will be one that provides properly funded, effective, efficient delivery of government services; maximises the resources sector by increasing capacity for value adding; has a long-term national biotechnology strategy and an obsession with quality science, research and development; guarantee a world-class education system with an energetic export sector; and equips Australians to be world leaders in IT services, water management and conservation strategies, climate change and the service industries.

In short, we have to use our brains in order to guarantee future prosperity; the future depends on us becoming a ‘brain gain' nation. Our modest population and geographic location will always demand this approach. Real, long-term reform, therefore, is not for the timid.

The focus of this national Constitutional Convention should be in two parts. The first should deal with a clearer definition of governmental responsibilities between the two levels of government. This should concentrate on the removal of wasteful duplication to provide for a smoother, more efficient and more accountable federation. A clearer definition of roles will provide for transparency and make buck passing much more difficult. Every Australian should know exactly which level of government is responsible for the delivery of what service, leading to a more accountable government. If the Constitutional Convention can agree on the realignment, it should be recognised in an agreement similar to that reached with States on the GST and, where necessary, constitutional reform.

 

THE FIRST CONSTITUTIONAL convention should not deal with the issue of the republic. That should be the basis of a second layer of reform after stage one has been completed. That would avoid a repeat of the politics surrounding the republic we saw at the 1998 Constitutional Convention and the subsequent failed referendum.

I would argue that the Commonwealth should assume full constitutional authority for:

• Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs. Our disgraceful record needs a national response and the Commonwealth should assume full responsibility.
• National registration of doctors, nurses and all other health professionals, including those trained overseas.
• National workforce planning and training of all health professionals. This means a national approach to the determining of areas of current and future skill needs which will then allow for a strategic response to meet those needs either by increasing training numbers and places or the use of overseas-trained professionals. The Federal Government, in consultation with the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) should provide an annual ‘health of the nation' report to the Federal Parliament detailing the demand for services, training numbers and how effectively the shortfalls and demand are being met. This reporting would identify skills shortages throughout Australia, particularly in areas of Indigenous health care, mental health and acute sectors such as emergency and peri-operative care.
• Hospitals, which should be run by a joint Commonwealth/State Hospitals Commission that provides direction for community health and preventative strategies. The annual health of the nation report should include an assessment by an independent body to remove the impact of health politics and self-interest on the delivery of health services.

In a number of other key areas, there needs to be a closer partnership between the Commonwealth and the states. For example, in the areas of education, service delivery, housing, research and development, climate change, biotechnology, IT and national infrastructure, political leaders should agree to produce a series of long-term strategies on the future of each of these areas that are reported annually to COAG. Such reports would allow for the benchmarking against international trends and allow for informed debate – and explore how to lift performance.

Finally, the states need to have a recognised role in the functioning of the Commonwealth government. This can be achieved through the Senate. The way the Senate currently operates is a betrayal of the founding fathers. They and the constitution provided for the Senate as a states' house. Political parties have subjugated the role of the Senate so that it merely follows the whim of political parties, large and small, rather than – as intended – being a states' house. The German parliamentary model, put together after World War II to ensure power sharing and avoid the tragedies of the past, has direct state representation in the Upper House.

One solution may be to follow the German model and appoint every state premier and territory leader or nominee to the Senate. This would force the states and Commonwealth to work more closely together. The result should be a reduction in buck passing and improved collective responsibility.

Finally, I would propose the introduction of two four-year term limits for prime ministers and premiers – a total of eight years' maximum service. Renewal is vital for good government.

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