Monday, 12 April 2010

The states we're in.

The Angry Exile, Upside Down Correspondent

According to The Australian support for scrapping the state governments is rising as around four in ten now see them as the least effective level of government. Four in ten people may well have a point, but I wonder if a large part of that is because the states have ceded far too much power to the federal government in Canberra. It's harder for state level government to be effective when it's restricted either legally or financially or both by a layer of government above it. It's just as hard for the state level government to be truly answerable to its citizens when it can simply shrug and pass the buck up to the federal level. Small wonder several Australians I know have said they'd be quite happy to ditch the states altogether. A good look at Britain and its place in the EU should show them why this view is dangerously wrong. If you want your life run by a powerful and remote government and for the elected representatives from where you live to have less and less significance then sidelining state governments is the way to go.

Now federalism in itself is not a bad thing. Quite the reverse. There is a lot to be said for having a level of government that deals with borders and relations with other parts of the world, but leaves much of the internal running to a number of smaller governments who are elected and look after their own areas according to the wishes of the people who actually live there. A federation of competing states, which I'm told is what Australia was supposed to be, has the benefit of offering a la carte rather than Hobson's choice to citizens and business. If one state has high local taxes and/or poor services then it faces the prospect of people moving to another state with lower taxes and/or better services. If someone disagrees with a law in one state they may find that it doesn't apply somewhere else. In the US there are fifty options just at the state level, with county and city ordinances providing for even more variation. Want to be able to just pop out and buy a gun, no questions asked? Move to Vermont. Want to pay no sales taxes? Move to Alaska. Don't mind gun laws and up to 10.75% sales tax as long as it's warm? Try California. Even here in Oz where there are only six states and two territories it's possible to make choices about where to live based on how things are done. Take abortion for example - if you're pro-choice Victoria and the ACT are most in line with your views, New South Wales to a lesser extent. If you're opposed to abortion you'll find the toughest laws are in Queensland. Similarly if you think prostitution should be illegal then South Australia is probably for you, and you should certainly steer clear of the eastern states, especially NSW. Similarly certain taxes such as stamp duty and payroll tax vary from state to state, so if that's a hot issue then again you have a choice. On issues where there is no choice and the law, services, the tax regime, whatever is the same everywhere then this is usually because the decisions are being made one level further away from the citizens.

Choice means individuals get to live nearer to their ideals and preferences. Choice is good. Unfortunately choice is not what you get if you give the federal government too much power. I'm all for federalism - yes, even in Europe - but as a way to promote choice for all individuals in a federation, not to make everything the same. That is what the EU is doing wrong, and that is why 60 million plus people in Britain, not to mention the thick end of half a billion across the rest of the EU, are finding ever greater areas of their lives run by a remote central government that has little knowledge of their situation and even less reason to care. If that's the model Australians want then abolishing state governments is the way to go. But if it's the end of ivory towers and a move towards government that understands the local issues that matter to individual citizens then far from abolishing state governments Australians should be demanding they take on much of the federal government's roles and powers, and perhaps even to have some of that brought down to city or shire level. The problem of irresponsible and ineffective government is rarely improved by moving responsibility further away from the governed - the closer it is to the voters the more incentive there is to get it right.


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