Of all the issues faced by Australia, few are more damaging to our country than the fiscal imbalance and ambiguous responsibilities between state and federal governments. You’ve really got to ask why Australia, a country of 25 million people, has nine growing health bureaucracies while maternity wards are being closed in my home state of Queensland.
We don’t need nine health bureaucracies while front line services are being cut, but it’s not just Health; Energy, Water, Education, and Transport Departments are dragged down by too much red tape and bureaucratic interference as well.
Most recently, we saw Federal and State Health Departments mismanage the COVID pandemic and who could forget the inability of well-meaning state governments to handle the national crisis in the recent bushfires.
These issues are above politics, yet constitutional issues continue to place additional and unwanted pressure on our operational response and recovery. This is no doubt in part due to unresolved issues when coordinating agencies and services between different tiers of government. This dysfunction isn’t confined only to how we deal with bushfires and other natural disasters; it impacts almost all government responsibilities—federal, state and local.
I called for a constitutional convention on the matter in my maiden speech. While I am a realist in acknowledging this may not take place without sufficient consultation and build-up, reopening the federation white paper instigated by the Abbott government would be a good start. It outlines several fundamental dysfunctions in the Australian federation that need to be addressed, including insufficient state autonomy, Commonwealth incursion into state areas of responsibility, vertical fiscal imbalance and wastage at all levels. In my opinion, there are two key areas that must be addressed to fix our federation. These are: clearly delineating responsibilities for service delivery between state and federal governments and the imperative need to address vertical fiscal imbalance. National partnership agreements, which help bandaid over the issue of the states’ financial woes, only serve to undermine accountability.
The federal government does not operate a single hospital in my home state of Queensland, yet it is attacked by the state government over hospital funding matters when it has very little control or oversight. This story is repeated across almost every portfolio. Whenever a state government fails to deliver, it points the finger at the federal government and asks for more money. The ability to divert responsibility to the federal government for many health and education outcomes is making state administrations rigid and unresponsive. Together with policing, these are core areas of clear constitutional responsibility for state governments, and they should rightly own both the successes and the failures. The fractured nature of the current federal system only makes Australians the losers, as it allows ever-cash-strapped state governments not to take responsibility for their failures.
Our Constitution was designed to hold government to account by the people, yet 120 years of compromise has rendered it ineffective. It is time for COAG to hold a constitutional convention to clearly define and separate these responsibilities, with proposed changes put to a referendum. The blame game needs to end. Australians deserve accountability.