OPINION / Federation Strain

clean blue water rippling in basin

The fissures in the Australian federal system seemed to widen substantially in the past fortnight. When you connect seemingly disconnected dots Australia seems like a patient whose refusal to change long-standing poor habits portends a breakdown of good health.

man pouring water from dipper on blue and grey house
Photo by hitesh choudhary on Pexels.com

Events in the past week or so demonstrate the gradual erosion of the art and science of public administration to a point where dysfunction and paralysis have set in.

Recently we have seen:

  • A Prime Minister delaying the declaration of a flood national disaster and the calling in of troops because he was waiting for the State Premiers to ask him to do so.
  • The 10th anniversary of the Gonski education reforms which were to reverse the measured decline in Australia’s education performance. It has got worse.
  • The Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, and his Deputy, Barnaby Joyce, barely acknowledging that the record-breaking floods and fires are down to climate change and still not doing anything about it on the international scale or planning to alleviate its future effects on a national scale.
  • A Liberal NSW Treasurer saying his state would go it alone unless the Federal Government introduced universal, affordable child care.
  • Fuel prices going way past $2 a litre.
  • The Prime Minister ruling out any tax changes which might address any of these matters.

This comes on top of the egregious mismanagement of the Covid pandemic and a hopeless response to the 2019-20 bushfires and the reconstruction after them.

All the while, the gradual erosion of equitable health care through soaring gap costs and long waiting lists continues, as does access to quality aged care.

Morrison’s admission that climate change was causing worse floods (and perhaps fires and droughts) was grudging and inarticulate:

“I think is just an obvious fact in Australia is getting hard to live in because of these disasters.”

And then the refusal to act:

“I’ll tell you what’s not going to fix climate change . . . doing something in Australia and then in other developing countries their emissions continue to rise.”

Joyce’s excuse for the lack of response was the extreme nature of the flooding:

“It’s 2.1 metres above the last record. 2.1 metres,” he said “Just have a think about that. That’s 2.1 metres above anything we’ve ever known about in the history of Australia.”

“Having a think about it” is something Joyce has obviously not done, at least not very deeply. The extra 2.1 metres accords exactly with what climate scientists have been telling us for years: floods, fires and droughts will be more severe and like nothing we have seen before.

Fires, floods, the pandemic and an insecure world are precisely the things which require greater public input. Yet over the past 20 years (since the GST and gun laws) there has been precious little reform and new policy other than the National Disability Insurance Scheme which itself has suffered from poor public administration.

Morrison was right to talk about Australia as being hard to live in. We have always had droughts and flooding rains as well as bushfires and vast flat deserts.

The dominance of the private sector; rugged individualism; and small government do not fit Australia’s history or geography. From the beginning of European occupation, it has always been a government-run show. The New South Wales convict settlement was government-initiated and run, just as were the other five colonies.

Unlike in the US, the big items of progress have been government-initiated (from both sides): the railways, telecommunications, the Snowy Mountains Scheme, Pharmaceutical Benefits, the universities, Mediback/Medicare, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, and so on.

When you have got the riches-yielding Mississippi and Ohio rivers in the middle of your continent, rather than the Simpson Desert and the Nullarbor, there is less need for government involvement.

Governmental paralysis and lack of public initiative is depriving Australia of enormous economic and social benefits.

The standouts are: childcare; education; health; energy, and tax.

Childcare: in the 70 years or so since women have been coming into the workforce in large numbers, there has been a festering unfairness: the costs for women going to work are far greater than that of men because of childcare. And the tax system has been ignoring those costs, thus causing a disincentive for women to work or work more hours. It is an enormous waste of talent.

Education: The federal-state funding system is warped. Government money is being wasted on schools that are already providing good education and starving those in desperate need. The skew towards private-school funding is so bad now that the Federal Government is better off if a child choses to go to a public school rather than a private one. Falling education standards could be reversed if the funding could be redirected, without even increasing the total spent.

Health: In the public system, people on waiting lists make less economic and social contribution. The private system is much less cost-effective, spending four times as much on administration as Medicare.

Patients with major heart, cancer and other major illnesses nearly always end up in the public system anyway. Private insurance cannot keep up with rising health costs and specialists’ fees. As more people leave it, the system becomes less sustainable and a greater drain than having the public system – not as a safety net – but as the primary means of care for everyone except those who can and are willing to pay the UNSUBSIDISED costs of private care.

Energy: the lost opportunities caused by failing to lead on renewals is disheartening. That is the cost of policy driven by ideology and the corrupt rewarding of fossil-industry donors.

Tax: The unfairness of low taxes on capital and high taxes on labour must be fixed. The dwindling revenues from the GST mean the states cannot properly fund health and education. And the fuel-price jump this week tells you that the fuel taxes that support road funding have to replaced with road-user charges as more well-off people buy electric cars and superciliously drive past petrol stations giving them the finger.

Can our political parties address these questions? Please can we have an election campaign with some imagination and vision and not a repeat of the past two decades of ruling everything out and tinkering around the edges.

This article first appeared in The Canberra Times and other Australian media on 15 March 2022.


Crispin Hull BA, LLB (Hons) | Property Convenor  |  ANU School of Legal Practice Lawyer of the Supreme Court of the ACT, on the Register of Practitioners kept by the High Court of Australia


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