Robert Carling: Has federalism failed us in the pandemic?

Disparate government policies within Australia in response to the SARS-Cov-2 pandemic have highlighted strengths and weaknesses in our federal structure.

The recent actions of state governments serve as a reminder that the states are sovereign entities with strong powers. This has come as a revelation to many people accustomed to decades of creeping centralism.

But the reality is that in many spheres the states have substantial policy latitude and can have a major influence on our lives. Public health is one of them.

It is fair to say that many people like the way Premiers have wielded those powers to suppress the virus. Indeed, one of the strengths of federalism is that sub-national governments can try different solutions to a problem and follow the examples that work best. But is that what has happened?

The dissenting view – shared by this commentator — is that state governments have mostly taken a singular and unrealistic view of coronavirus risk management and failed in their duty to balance health advice against the economic, social and (broadly defined) health costs of their policies. Some of them are also pursuing parochial and populist state border restrictions that are doing enormous economic and social harm.

If Premiers are behaving badly, that doesn’t necessarily mean the federal system is broken and more powers should go to the Commonwealth. Any politician, including federal ones, can behave badly. That is what elections are for – and if we the voters don’t take the opportunity to reject bad behaviour and policies, then arguably we deserve what we get.

Rather, the question is whether the pandemic has exposed structural flaws in our federal system that have caused or enabled bad policies and need to be corrected through constitutional amendment or reform of Commonwealth-state relations.

The power of a state to stop residents of other states and territories from crossing their border — or imposing conditions of entry — is one such structural issue. This power is currently under legal challenge in the case of Western Australia. Depending on the outcome of the legal process now moving at snail’s pace, there may need to be some national soul-searching on this issue for the benefit of future generations.

Arguably, border restrictions imposed by one state affect everyone in the nation, not just residents of that state, and should only be imposed with the approval of the national government.

The distribution of financial powers also calls for examination, as the current arrangements do not give states the incentive to fully consider the economic and fiscal burden of the Covid restrictions they have imposed on economic activity.

Robert Carling is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies. This op-ed was first published here.

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16 Responses to Robert Carling: Has federalism failed us in the pandemic?

  1. Steve

    This author appears to have not understood the simple reality that the covid response is for re-engineering of society. …it was never about the virus. The virus itself was nevr really avproblem and hovts the world over have stage managed the response and information fliw for maximum confusion and control.

    Never let a good crisis go to waste.

  2. Hay Stockard

    The ultra vires National Cabinet is an example of how current Federalism ascending into cloud cuckoo land

  3. Roger W

    A pity it has been left up to Clive Palmer to challenge the border closures. What an unlikely champion of the Constitution and common sense!

  4. Roger

    The distribution of financial powers also calls for examination, as the current arrangements do not give states the incentive to fully consider the economic and fiscal burden of the Covid restrictions they have imposed on economic activity.

    Devolve income tax powers to the states (which had them up until 1943).

    That would resolve the vertical fiscal imbalance, the greatest bug of our federal system.

    It would also necessitate a reduction in the size of the Federal government, closer to what the Constitution intended originally.

  5. Angus Black

    Thing is, it doesn’t matter how you break the country down, there’s always going to be some politician who thinks she knows better than you do…and she’s going to be ordering you about.

  6. Back Burn

    To answer the question. Yes

    Abdication of the “Quarantine” component of the Constitution is a breach of “Duty of Care” by the Federal government.

    The entire Senate and House of Representatives should be immediately fired and replaced with random Australian Citizens for next 6 months

    The usurping of the “Quarantine” component of the Constitution by State Governments is a criminal act .

    All State government ministers should be immediately be put on trial.

  7. Noddy

    It is not the federal system that has failed but the ‘over-paid’ politicians and bureaucrats who manage the system thus abrogating all Power unto themselves. Power has been usurped from the Electorate, sadly allowed by voters, aided and abetted by a mendacious media. The Federal ‘system of government’ is good!
    The ‘division of Power’ between States and Commonwealth is also good but the elected ‘managers’ need to be replaced. The Individual Representative cannot vote as their conscience dictates but must do as they are told or else lose Party endorsement–this is ‘veiled coercion’ of an elected Member and an offense at Law.
    Who will prosecute? I am reminded of the words of John Harington, “If Treason Doth prosper, then None Dare call it Treason” or words to that effect. A start could be made by decentralizing ‘financial Power’, with the States resuming individual sovereignty and re-establishing their own State Banking which was once the case. Now here’s one for the books–abolish elections! Put the names of all eligible candidates in a barrel and draw the required number to represent all of us. You could not do worse than the representation now apparent. The elected representatives should be warned that a ‘whipping’ is the penalty for straying.
    Electoral improvement would be immediately apparent, likewise, bureaucrats should be warned. There will be no shortage of volunteers to ply the whip!

  8. Louis

    For everyone who thinks getting rid of the States would be a good thing remember two things. 1. corruption at local government level is not only rife, but escapes sufficient scrutiny for lack of interest (most significantly by the media) 2. Imagine a Dan Andrews with the power to deploy the Military, ASIO, border Force and the AFP.

    The process of screwing up our Federal system and growing the Federal government was started by the High Court in the 1930s. You can call out the ambition of central power Prime Minsters, but without the High Court enabling it all the way, it wouldn’t have happened.

  9. H B Bear

    Just the latest failure. It has been failing since 1901.

  10. Sortition. Direct democracy. Confederalism. Subsidiarity.

  11. Entropy

    We actually need real federation. Kill the income tax assessment act, the corporations act, and the EPBC Act and we might get somewhere.
    The feds should be asking for money, not the states.

  12. Roger

    The feds should be asking for money, not the states.

    +1

  13. Rockdoctor

    Think the present arrangement though not perfect could work given there was a strong federal leader in a crisis, which is lacking. However the PM has form, he was a whipping boy during the bushfire crisis from all quarters and barely even raised a hand in defence. The National Cabinet is smoke and mirrors for media consumption, why have the catty Adern as a part of otherwise. Scotty is a marketing man thats why, looks good to the fawning media. Everything else is secondary IMO.

    The main bone of contention IMO being the border closures, the WA one is likely illegal under the Constitution but others that allow movement across albeit after 2 week isolation from learned opinion I have read likely safe. As for ADF support, well when Vic Pol started turning into two faced jackbooted thugs (In fairness likely under orders) then ADF support should have been withdrawn to borders & quarantine hotels only. Then there is job keeper.

    As much as I despise Gillard and all she stood for she is the only PM since Keating that wouldn’t have stood for the grandstanding that has been allowed by the Premiers of Queensland, Victoria and WA recently.

  14. flyingduk

    The distribution of financial powers also calls for examination, as the current arrangements do not give states the incentive to fully consider the economic and fiscal burden of the Covid restrictions they have imposed on economic activity.

    Aint that the truth. Does anyone think Dictator Dan could do what he is doing, or that his citizens would tolerate it, if the rest of the country wasn’t sending them ‘stimulus cheques’?

  15. Pete of Freo

    The federation has been a failure from it’s inception, founded as it was on the conceit that a continent the size of Australia could be governed by a bunch of gas-bags and bullshit artists in a fucking Queanbeyan sheep paddock!
    Just give me a list of any particular actions of the Federal Government that haven’t ended in a rolling maul of cluster-fuck.

  16. old bloke

    Does anyone think Dictator Dan could do what he is doing, or that his citizens would tolerate it, if the rest of the country wasn’t sending them ‘stimulus cheques’?

    Stop the stimulus cheques, get everyone back to work. The rest of Australia could help the Victorians who can’t find employment with a “Bundles for Britain” type program, let’s call it “Vittles for Victoria.”

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