Whither Australia’s Federal Government?

If you observe Australian Federal politics for a short while, you may draw the conclusion the current Prime Minister provides about as much national utility as a chocolate teapot. However, should you be masochistic enough to observe Australian Federal politics for a longer time, you will realise this “as useful as tits on a bull” characteristic is common to ALL of the modern era Prime Ministers. It’s a feature of the system, not a bug.

It is possible you are unaware of the, cough, subtleties of the political system in Australia. I certainly was prior to moving here. If this doesn’t describe you, save time and skip the following 3 paragraphs.

Australia has a federated system of states, similar to, yet different from, the USA. This is documented in a rambling and confused constitution which reads like a bunch of vested interests wanted to copy the American version but without any of the annoying parts describing the rights of individuals, inalienable freedoms and primacy of self-determination. Frankly, it’s a dog’s breakfast of a document, although it does perfectly demonstrate the nation’s ongoing struggle with English prose.

The important part is that it is a federated system of quasi-sovereign states, where state governments have far more power than someone from most European counties would intuit.

If that wasn’t obvious prior to 2020, it became painfully clear during the response to the pandemic as state premiers opened and closed domestic borders in a spirit suggesting they felt Queensland and New South Wales had no more in common than Spain and Gibraltar. Meanwhile, the powerless Prime Minister and his ministers mouthed silently like fish washed up on the shore.

The “lived experience” of this system is a confused mess of inconsistent laws and competing regulations (up to 11 versions) for a population similar to that of London and the Home Counties.

Practical examples of this include;

There are countless examples such as these. It’s analogous to the American version of states within a republic but without the justification which comes from the sheer size of population. Both versions probably made huge sense before easy transport and communications, but only one still works as an effective ongoing experiment to test new legislation in a limited jurisdiction. Australia’s federated system of states seems to add unnecessary friction and cost to day to day life when one can travel faster than a horse and communicate quicker than a letter.

These annoyances and inefficiencies impacted Australians infrequently and not greatly enough to become a political movement prior to 2020. From March 2020, the various and differing state responses to the global pandemic starkly exposed the flaws in the system.

We could spend much time here discussing the seemingly random, unconnected and different state laws Australians were subject to during the previous 12 months, pointing out the illogical border closures seemingly dependent on whether the neighbouring state was governed by your fellow political travellers rather than location and number of cases.

The topic of this post is not “Whither Australia’s State Governments?” however. Today, we are wondering what exactly is the bloody point of all the various sociopaths, incompetents, rent-seekers and clock-watchers we are paying for in Canberra? A shorter version of that question is, “what’s the point of the Feds?”.

From what we’ve learned this year, the main duties of the Federal Government seem to be limited to the following:

  • National defence,
  • International Diplomacy (with the caveat some states have been running side campaigns in this area),
  • Immigration,
  • Central banking and the national economy,
  • Collecting income tax and distributing much of it to the states,
  • Erm, that’s about it.

So why then, for example, would the Federal Department of Health need 4,000 full time employees? The department “oversees” the state health departments, doesn’t have any hospitals, and probably doesn’t even employ more than a few dozen medical professionals.

It also failed spectacularly to secure enough vaccines from a diverse selection of pharmaceutical suppliers, despite having been given a 12 month grace period whilst we’ve been locked in a quarantined country. A luxury most other countries did not have. The words, “you had one job” seem somewhat appropriate.

There’s also a Department of Social Services with 1,887 souls desperately doing something, anything, every working day to justify their salary and pension, despite all of the actual governmental social services being delivered at a state level.

Rinse and repeat this question for every federal department listed here, with a particular curiosity for the 107 employees overseeing the $21m spent each year on Food Standards New Zealand.

It’s become painfully obvious over the last year that, regardless of which party is in power, the Federal Government isn’t fit for purpose. If you are unconvinced, let’s try a thought experiment to imagine what Australian life might look like in a version of reality where the Federal Government was fit for purpose.

Obviously, a centrally procured and “needle ready” national vaccine programme, would seem to be a desirable outcome. Also, perhaps it wouldn’t have taken over 12 months to negotiate a standard national policy to determine why and when lockdowns and internal border closures would be enforced.

What about in a regular, non-pandemic year?

How about a national standard for all medical qualifications? Followed by a national standard for any other profession which doesn’t have a specific regional flavour to it?

Or perhaps a joined up immigration system where infrastructure such as roads, housing, health and education capacity were planned and implemented in sync with the new arrivals?

We might expect a fit for purpose Federal Government brokering agreements to standardise rail gauges and facilitate inter-city rail links capable of speeds greater than Stephenson’s Rocket.

The outcomes we can observe in non-pandemic years should be evidence enough of the pointlessness of the Federal Government in its current form. What we experienced during the pandemic simply made it all the more obvious.

Bill’s Opinion

It won’t surprise regular readers of my minarchist instincts. The less opportunity an unelected bureaucrat has to interfere in my life, the happier I am. So, obviously I was in favour of immediately firing as many of them as possible anyway, even before making the observations above.

The post-2020 difference though, is I now have a very clear idea of which career politicians should be given their marching orders first; everyone in Canberra. Raze the buildings, salt the earth, remove the place name from the maps. Replace it with something a fraction of its current size and, while we’re at it, distribute it around the country. There’s a reason why Canberra has the best restaurants in Australia….because you’re picking up the bill for the food and wine every night.

It would seem to me that, based on the dog’s breakfast of a constitution and 120 years of legal precedence, the role of the ideal Federal Government can be summed up in one noun, “diplomacy”.

All we actually need from the Feds is to maintain appropriate relations with other countries (including “muscular” diplomacy, where required) and to use the same diplomacy skills to broker frictionless relations between Australian states and territories.

I’m not even convinced we necessarily benefit by the setting of interest rates and collection of income taxes to be undertaken at a Federal level. Perhaps what’s good economically for Sydney isn’t the same as that which would benefit Launceston, and the ability for their respective state governments to independently course-adjust would be more optimal?

Ultimately, my ramblings on this subject were just an exercise in complaining; there’s zero chance the Canberra political-industrial complex will countenance a change and, unless the people of Melbourne, Sydney, and Brisbane* decide to march on the ACT with pitchforks and singing La Marseilles, nothing will change any time soon.

*sorry Darwin, Adelaide and Hobart, but you’re not relevant. As for Perth; go on, we dare you to declare UDI; we’ll invade and take over those mines within 15 minutes…to save them from China.

6 Replies to “Whither Australia’s Federal Government?”

  1. I’ll see your Canberra, and raise an Ottawa. A similar federation, except the most over-represented sub-entity makes its living by threatening to leave, and voting en bloc to ensure the Federal government bends to its will, and transfers funds to buy the loyalty of the perpetually disgruntled.

  2. Oh, I should add, I suspect we match the over-provision of services – health, education, mining, forestry, environmental issues, transport (and the list goes on) are all exclusively Provincial (State) responsibilities under both the original and the amended constitution – but we have enormous Federal operations for all of them, even though the number of Federal employees at the pointy end of any of these departments can be counted on the toes of one hand.

  3. The constitution made more sense when most taxation was in the hands of the states. Income tax was transferred to the Federal government as a war measure and they still have it today. While health, education etc. are officially state responsibilities, a lot of the funding comes from Canberra hence their own departments that try to dictate policy.
    Neither the constitution nor centralized taxation can be altered now for reasons too convoluted and dull to go into here, so we’re stuck with it.
    Aussies won’t pick up pitchforks. In 2020 we lost lost all our freedoms and the vast majority of the population urged even greater tyranny.

  4. Nikolai centralized taxation will stay because it suits the premiers. They get the benefits and love from spending the money the federal government gets the opprobium for collecting. A “gentleman” Mr Keating tried to push the states to set a state rate of income tax and the silence was deafening. The central government only collects tax with the permission of the states.
    Further as I understand it all the capitals are connected by the standard rail guage now. You can travel Sydney Adelaide Perth on the same train, and Adelaide Darwin on the Ghan, and Brisbane Sydney Melbourne also on the one train. I suspect the speed of travel is slowed by the desirable aim to not have two trains on the same single track going opposite directions. So the trains spend time waiting for other trains to clear the track. This is not going to change, trains are labour intensive and track is being removed not more laid.p

  5. Say (random guess, I can’t be arsed to Google) there are twenty government departments in Canberra. Each of them needs a sub-department to liaise with their oppos in each of the other departments.

    Moreover, say that there are ten sub-departments in a government department. Each of them needs a sub-sub department to liaise with each of the other sub-departments in that same government department. In addition they may decide that their department’s liaison sub-department is shite, and create their own sub-sub-sub departments to liaise with each of the sub-departments in each of the other government departments.

    If you are familiar with the chessboard and the grains of rice parable, you will see that the number of serpents “keeping the other chaps informed, be on the same page doncherknow, getting our ducks in a row and avoid unnecessary duplication of effort you see” reaches five figures, even if there is only one serpent per sub-sub-sub department.

    They sorely rue the demise of rubber stamps.

    Because Parkinson.

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