Australian republicans should try to fix the federation first

It was former Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating who supposedly said to ‘Never get between a Premier and a bag of cash’.

And Australians have learnt to get out of the way.

Federalism is, to say the least, messy. Even well before responding to COVID-19, it had become synonymous with overlap, duplication, waste and blame between state and federal governments.

Kevin Rudd, to his credit, aimed to improve things through performance measures and a sea of commonwealth-state agreements. And Tony Abbott, commendably, tried to invigorate change through a white and green paper. While both efforts either stalled or fell short now, it seems, is a fundamental time to re-start this important – if not critical – reform.

To a rightfully confused public, state and federal responsibilities – especially health services and public hospitals – are in front of the public in a way they haven’t been in living memory. With added pressure on the public purse, there are acute expectations on all levels of government to get the settings right to rebuild Australia’s ruined economies.

In not just health but education, tax or even public housing, serious and genuine reforms could be put on the table to better streamline how Australia is governed. Good gains could be made.

And yet, while this offers a moment to exploring constitutional reform, some will stay close to their coveted priorities.

The most obvious is Indigenous constitutional recognition. This, according to Noel Pearson, should be “the first cab off the rank”.

The other is an Australian republic. Presently, republicans are working up options for a model on how best to select an Australian President. An internal consensus, if one arrives, will likely emerge in around 18 months – time and effort that’d be better spent examining how we might solve the federation riddle.

Granted, this is likely the toughest challenge in the book for any reformist movement or government. For all the wisdom of local challenges requiring local solutions – arguably the whole idea behind our federation – generations of Australians have shown a remarkable capacity to turn responsibilities over to Canberra.

This has been from indigenous affairs to commerce, not to mention the High Court which, even in the first decade of federation, denied state access to ‘surplus revenue’. In semi-recent times, a decade of Howard government competency further pulled the decision strings back to Canberra. Please ‘keep the cow’, as Australia’s first public servant Robert Garran timelessly noted in 1934, and ‘do the milking for us’.

In his 2015 National Press Club Address, republican Peter Fitzsimons declared, with his usual zeal, that the movement had “high brow, we have it in spades”. Indeed, republicans bring a vast amount of energy to constitutional reform. They are willing to spend big in terms of resources, time and intellectual effort. And they have a unique mix of allies in government.

So why not, at this important moment, apply their efforts to a pressing national priority like federation reform?

Image Source: National Library of Australia/Scootle

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