A passionate defense of Federalism

Melbourne, 21 February 2008

Socratic Forum group with Professor Craven
From the left: Professor Ashley Goldsworthy AO, Professor Sampford, Senator Alison, Professor McMullen, Professor Howe , Professor Craven and Professor Gallagan.
“This is not simply a debate about power; it is about governance and the principles behind it,”
began ACU Vice Chancellor Professor Greg Craven as he opened a passionate discussion of Federalism in Melbourne’s Socratic Forum event at the Melbourne Campus (St. Patrick’s) on 21 February.

The Socratic Forum is a national debate series sponsored by the Griffith University Centre for Ethics, Governance and Law, in partnership with ACU and the University of Sydney. In the spirit of Socrates, the forum encourages open and non-partisan debate on issues of relevance to Australian Society. This year’s topic concerned Commonwealth-State relations, brandishing the title “That Canberra is taking too much power from the states.”

Arguing in the affirmative voice, Professor Craven advocated a system of ‘leadership federalism,’ one that promotes diversity, democracy, community and innovation and will not leave Australia lost on the currents of “Rudderalism,” a model of “co-operative federalism.”

“Do we want a single government that can do anything?” he asked. “The answer is no.”

Opposing Professor Craven was former Deputy Prime Minister Professor Brian Howe, who argued for horizontal equity and subsidiarity, the idea that decisions should take place within the lowest realm of authority whenever possible. Professor Howe advocated for a strong evidence-based approach to public policy which upheld the national interest.

“We need a co-operative federalism with improved processes,” he said.

Other participants in this year’s Socratic Forum included Leader of the Australian Democrats Senator Lyn Alison, the University of Melbourne’s School of Public Policy Professor Brian Gallagan and Griffith University’s Institute for Ethics, Governance and Law Professor Charles Sampford who all contributed as commentators.

Senator Alison called attention to the grey area between both lead speaker’s models, highlighting the need to veer away from ‘opportunistic federalism’ rife with cost-shifting and buck-passing. She cited the example of the Northern Territory intervention and the national competition policy as complicated examples of both success and failure in Commonwealth-state relations.

Professor Gallagan argued that an ‘aspirational nationalism,’ or national interest, is difficult to define, that there have been a string of decisions based on politics that had, at their heart, “more money than sense.” He advocated forcefully for a federalism where the opposition is vocal, a model where “two are better than one.”

“Who decides where the power is made?” asked Professor Sampford, drawing attention to the role of the High Court. While also arguing for subsidiarity, he encouraged a perspective of government relations beyond “the Golden Triangle” of Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra. “There is an assumption that we are politically similar all over Australia,” he said. “But those who choose to make their own, different decisions should be able to.”

The participants were met with many questions from the engaged and entertained audience, ranging from individual rights to the role of regional Australia in current decision-making models. Paraphrasing American writer Truman Capote, one observer remarked, “There are so few good conversations out there because, due to scarcity, two intelligent talkers seldom meet. Today, we were lucky to have five.”