Federalism is a political system where powers are divided between central and regional governments in such a way that each has authority within its own sphere. In contemporary Australian federation, substantial cultural homogeneity acts as an influential centripetal force. This factor has indirectly precipitated the strengthening of the Commonwealth government vis-à-vis the State governments. An important centrifugal influence is the status quo forces, existing actors with an interest in preserving the autonomy of States. Status quo forces extend to the population at large, who are accustomed to regional government and resentful of any meddling.
In contrast to Australia, Canada’s cultural diversity acts as a potent factor dividing the nation. The counterbalancing centripetal force is Canada’s network of intergovernmental institutions, which is far more extensive than the corresponding Australian network. Despite this, centrifugal forces prevail in contemporary Canada whilst Australian federalism is characterized by the operation of centripetal pressures.
Centripetal forces in Australia
Regionalism is the tendency of the constituent elements of a federation to have, obtain or develop, and sustain, recognizable identities separate from one another and separate from the central government. Although the Australian founding fathers had a prevailing loyalty to the State, a distinct lack of regionalism characterizes contemporary Australian federalism. Historically, colonists shared a common race, language, and British heritage. Events such as Gallipoli and the benefits of the transport and communications revolution had a coalescent effect on the Australian people. Although migration increased after World War II, Professor Colin Howard remarked that contemporary Australian society possessed linguistic, cultural, and social homogeneity unparalleled across so great an area anywhere else in the world. Therefore, the enduring homogeneity of the Australian population, and the unifying events of history, cultivated a keen sense of national identity and diminished regionalism in Australia.
This centripetal influence manifested itself in the increasing authority of the Commonwealth government at the expense of the State governments. The Commonwealth government increased its strength in three main ways. Firstly, federal members of parliament sought more power for the Commonwealth government. They have extended Commonwealth influence through s.96 of the Constitution, which allows the Commonwealth to grant finances to the States, on conditions specified by the Commonwealth. The Whitlam government formulated new policies in health and education, much of this by way of s. 96 grants. Secondly, new issues in contemporary Australia, and demands from new interest groups, have required the attention of the federal government. In the 1990s, for instance, environmental interest groups requested government intervention in ecological issues. Thirdly, and most importantly, judicial interpretation of the Constitution has generally been pro-Commonwealth.
Following the Engineer’s Case , the High Court has generally favoured the federal government in respect of Commonwealth-State disputes. Judicial interpretation of the external affairs power under s. 51 (xxix) of the Constitution has allowed the Commonwealth to legislate in areas traditionally controlled by the State. In Koowarta v. Bjelke-Petersen , the High Court held that the Commonwealth could counter Queensland’s paternalistic treatment of its Aboriginal population by implementing an anti-racial discrimination treaty to which the Commonwealth was signatory. The Tasmanian Dams Case applied the same wide reading of the external affairs power, preventing the construction of a dam in a prescribed World Heritage area. In Richardson v. Forestry Commission (Tasmania) , the High Court extended this ruling to prevent industrial development in areas of the Tasmanian forest whilst those areas were under review for nomination to the World Heritage List. Therefore, in contemporary Australia, the Commonwealth has extensive influence over State affairs by virtue of its external affairs power.
High Court decisions have been instrumental in achieving Commonwealth fiscal dominance. In the Uniform Tax Case , the High Court allowed the Commonwealth to obtain a monopoly over income taxation. From this point on, the States had to rely on the Federal government returning an adequate proportion of the income tax paid by their citizens. The judicial trend of expanding Commonwealth power reflects the nationalist outlook prominent in Australia. This can be inferred from the comments of Justice Brennan (as he then was) when he opined that the decision in the Engineer’s Case was a result of a realization that “…Australians were now one people and Australia one country and… national laws might meet national needs”.
Michael Crommelin argued that the expansion of Commonwealth power was a result of the failure to specify exclusive State powers in the Constitution. This means that no express constraint is attributable to the definitions of Commonwealth powers. However, considering the lack of regionalism in Australia, it is unclear whether the inclusion of express State powers would have materially altered the judicial trend of expanding Commonwealth authority. For instance, Cullen contended that intrinsic forces, rather than the wording of the Constitutional text, led to the centralization of Australian federalism.
Centrifugal forces in Australia
Although the development of Australian federalism indicates the dominance of centripetal forces, there are certainly centrifugal influences within the federation. Historically, a sense of separateness developed between the Australian colonies and the founding fathers hoped federalism would preserve the independence of the Australian States. Although the spirit of nationhood grew during the course of the twentieth century, Australian institutions and the public at large became accustomed to federalism and suspicious of any attempt to change it. The well-established concept of a dual loyalty to the State and the Commonwealth means that most Australians would be reluctant, if not hostile, to any threat to the existence of States. Thus, status quo forces are the principle centrifugal influence in contemporary Australia.
Status quo forces can stem from institutions or other individual actors, which have private interests in maintaining the federal system. More generally, status quo pressures may derive from a popular perception that federalism is a bulwark of individual liberties. In opposition to this perception, Gordon Greenwood argued that England maintains individual liberties despite not being a federation. Greenwood’s contention carries some weight. However, if the public perceives that federalism protects individual liberties, it is immaterial that federalism does not actually provide such protection. It is the perception, distinguished from the reality, which provides fuel for status quo forces. Furthermore, the great span of the Australian continent poses threats to liberty that do not exist to the same degree in England. Such threats include the need to ensure that people living a great distance from capital cities have their interests adequately represented in parliament.
It has been argued that the rejection of numerous referenda that propose an increase of Commonwealth power illustrates the operation of status quo forces. However, it is unclear whether it is correct to claim that people who vote against such proposals are voting “for the States” or “for federalism”. For instance, Professor R. S. Parker contended that chance, apathy, ignorance, and party allegiances all have an effect on referendum results and the actual merit of federalist issues plays little part in the vote. Accordingly, the rejection of pro-Commonwealth referenda does not necessarily illustrate the operation of status quo forces.
The significant divergence among the States in several areas of law is a manifestation of centrifugal forces in Australia. Australia has no unified system of family law. Sections 51 (xxi) and (xxii) of the Constitution provide very limited powers to the Commonwealth, mainly concerning issues of marriage. Consequently, there is variation in State laws dealing with child custody, guardianship, and adoption. Sections 51 (xxiii) and (xxiiia) of the Constitution provide for the Commonwealth to make laws in respect of social services. However, social services such as women’s refuges and intrastate legal aid are not included. Consequently, there is no guarantee of equality of social services across Australia. Divergences in the law exemplify the continuing operation of centrifugal forces in contemporary Australia. These forces stem from the desire of institutions and the general population to preserve the status quo.
The Canadian comparison
Canadian federalism offers a useful point of comparison. Status quo forces operate in Canada, just as they do in Australia. However, Canadian regionalism is more acute due to cultural diversity, inharmonious history and, to a lesser extent, geography. This distinction explains the decentralization of governing power in Canada compared to the centralization of power in Australia.
The homogeneity of the Australian population stands in stark contrast to the social diversity of Canada. Twenty-four percent of the Canadian population is French speaking. Further, Canada’s Provinces, particularly Quebec, have a strong tradition of autonomy. Economically, the Provinces cluster into distinct regions – the Western Provinces, the Central Provinces, and the Atlantic Provinces. Geographically, Australia’s isolation as a British bastion in South East Asia has had a centripetal effect, whereas Canada’s position next to the United States is primarily a centrifugal factor. This is due to the trade links between the USA and the Canadian Provinces. Therefore, in contrast to Australia, the cultural, economic, and geographic conditions of Canada intensify regionalism and have a centrifugal effect on Canadian federation.
Canada’s “first past the post” electoral system has exacerbated regionalism by encouraging major parties to build on their regional strengths rather than strive for even support across the country. Conversely, Australian major parties draw substantial support from all the States and Territories, which reflects a low degree of regionalism.
Whilst, historical events in Australia have consolidated a sense of nationhood, Canadian historical events tend to be divisive, such as the October crisis in Quebec. Therefore, Canada’s discordant history has magnified regionalism and strained Canada’s battle-weary sense of national identity. The intense regionalism of contemporary Canada is evident in the autonomy of the Provinces.
Canada’s provinces have preserved fiscal self-reliance. Provinces are able to levy direct retail sales taxes whilst s. 90 of the Australian Constitution prevents like activity by Australian States. Moreover, the Canadian Provinces wield greater control over income tax. All the Provinces, except Quebec, set a provincial income tax as a percentage of the federal income tax payable. Quebec sets its own progressive marginal tax rates.
Additionally, Canadian Provinces have implemented a wide range of barriers to trade, which enhances their self-sufficiency, self-identity and autonomy. In comparison, the Australian High Court interpreted s. 92 of the Constitution in a way that severely curtailed the capacity of the States to utilize fiscal or non-fiscal barriers. As an indirect consequence of acute regionalism in Canada, the Provinces have maintained fiscal influence. The relative lack of regionalism in Australia has resulted in the financial disempowerment of Australian States.
A juxtaposition of the Australian and Canadian offshore disputes reveals the nature of the respective federations. Whilst the Australian offshore dispute was resolved on a national basis, which indicates the presence of a strong nationalist outlook in Australia, the Canadian offshore dispute was resolved on a regional basis, which reflects the prominence of regionalism in Canada.
To counterbalance the divisive effect of regionalism, an important centripetal influence in Canada is the extensive network of intergovernmental institutions. A permanent Conference Secretariat facilitates organization and Ministers for Intergovernmental Affairs exist at the federal level and in six of the Provinces. In 1996, the federal government unveiled a new plan to overcome internal division within the federation. By late 1997, the Dominion and the Provinces agreed to a Canada Wide Accord on the Environment. In early 1999, the Framework Agreement on Social Union marked the culmination of a comprehensive review of social policy. The success of these enterprises was due in large part to the extensive network of intergovernmental institutions operating in Canada.
The Australian intergovernmental network is far less comprehensive than the Canadian network, and consists of the Leader’s Forum and the Council of Australian Governments. The nature of Australian federalism means that the role of the intergovernmental bodies is slightly different to the role of such bodies in Canada. Canada’s intergovernmental network is essential for maintaining unity. Australia’s intergovernmental network is useful for allowing at least some State participation in federal decision making. This nuance reflects the domination of centripetal and centrifugal forces in Australia and Canada respectively.
The primary centripetal force in contemporary Australian federalism is the lack of regionalism. This factor derives from substantial cultural homogeneity and the unifying events of history. Status quo forces are the primary centrifugal factor operating in the Australian federation. Status quo influences stem from the desire of existing institutions and the general population to maintain the independence of States. The centralization of governing power in Australia is a manifestation of the dominance of centripetal forces.
In stark contrast to Australia, Canada is a culturally diverse federation. Consequently, prominent regionalism is a centrifugal factor, dividing Canada on a federal-provincial and provincial-provincial basis. Canadian Provinces enjoy more independence than Australian States, particularly in fiscal matters. The primary centripetal force in Canada is the network of intergovernmental institutions, which is pivotal for providing a measure of unity. The corresponding Australian network is not as extensive. Pursuant to the varying intensities of regionalism, centripetal and centrifugal forces prevail in contemporary Australia and Canada respectively.
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