The democratic pitfalls of "aspirational nationalism"

4 Sep 2007

Centralised decision-making would reduce opportunities for civic participation, writes TALIA EPSTEIN.

JOHN HOWARD’S call for “aspirational nationalism” proclaims a new vision of federal-state relations focused on outcomes, not systems. But might this come at the expense of democratic participation?

Last month the federal government announced the creation of a new federal trust fund to pay for “economic and social infrastructure” and to assist in developing local projects, whether or not these fall within the traditional domain of Commonwealth responsibility. In contrast to Labor’s proposed last-resort takeover of all the nation’s public hospitals, backed by a referendum to mandate a permanent shift in federal power if needed, the Howard government’s policy of selective intervention would allow it to pick and choose which local matters warrant Commonwealth attention.

This reflects the prime minister’s broader position on the states’ management of key issues. Mr Howard views the states as muddled with bureaucracy and ineffective policies, and ill-equipped to deal with matters that affect communities in their day-to-day lives, such as health, education, employment and welfare services. But armed with their “war chest” of funds from successive budget surpluses, he and his cabinet are ready to step in to save ailing hospitals, libraries and town halls, and deal directly with local communities.

At first glance, the prime minister’s vision may appear justified - after all, the constant buck-passing between the Commonwealth and the states has done little to improve the quality of our education or the condition of our hospitals. But this degree of micro-attention at the federal level will actually mean that Australian citizens have less opportunity to participate in decisions affecting them.

Advocates of the federal system argue that federalism remains relevant in a country as diverse as Australia. It enhances democratic participation by providing people with the opportunity to participate in several levels of government, reducing the gap between communities and decision-makers. Local decisions are made at the local level by councils and state governments, while matters of national importance are the preserve of the Commonwealth.

Mr Howard’s “aspirational nationalism” sits uncomfortably with our existence as a federal state. As the government seeks to expand its powers and take on new roles previously the responsibility of the states, the Commonwealth government is being transformed into a one-stop shop, dealing with issues across a broad spectrum. From local libraries to universities to national defence, it will have its hand in the lot.

Mr Howard’s expanded centralism means that when we vote, much more is at stake than has been previously. But does this mean that someone is listening? Say a local community library is in desperate need of renovation. Under the Howard plan, the community would be eligible to receive funding from the Commonwealth to upgrade their library’s facilities. But who should the community approach to have their needs heard - the local council, state government or their federal member of parliament? On a practical level, the local council would be the best bet - aware of the needs of the community and managing a smaller electorate, the council would be more responsive to local concerns than a federal parliamentarian who deals with a broad range of issues and a more diverse electorate.

For the same reason that a secretary in a major corporation would not approach the company’s CEO to ask about stationary supplies, neither is it realistic to expect that federal members of parliament will have the time or resources to assess local needs and allocate funding accordingly. It is impractical to expect that the local federal member will necessarily have the time or resources to address the needs of the local library, while simultaneously representing his constituents in the federal parliament. Would Phillip Ruddock, for instance, have time to spare to address the community’s concerns, while discharging his many responsibilities as attorney-general? By proposing that the Commonwealth fund these local issues, Mr Howard is suggesting that this is what will occur.

This expansion of powers is in clear contradiction with the Liberal Party platform which states that “responsibilities should be divided according to federal principles, without the Commonwealth taking advantage of powers it has acquired otherwise than by referendum.” The prime minister’s policy raises fundamental questions: when we, as Australians, go to the polls in the upcoming federal election, will we be getting our vote’s worth? Will ticking a box on a ballot sheet once every three years give us enough say on the many issues - national and local - we care about? How do we ensure that federal parliamentarians will have time to listen to our local concerns once the election has passed?

Selective intervention in local issues is a bandaid solution and undermines our current federal system. Federalism, the essence of our constitution, is too important to be tampered with haphazardly. Without genuine and considered reform, we risk a diminished form of civic participation.

• Talia Epstein is social justice intern at the Gilbert + Tobin Centre of Public Law, University of New South Wales.

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