An Essential Research poll published today on Pollytics blog is one of the most interesting I have seen on federalism:
I suggests that the Australian public is not quite as centralist as other polling can lead us to believe. The federal government does not have majority support for exclusively taking over any of the areas of traditional state responsibility – though they are ahead of the states on all but water supply. The interesting point in this poll is the significant support for joint state and federal responsibility.
The political class conventional wisdom – among centralists and federalists alike – has been that joint responsibility is a problem. It leads to duplication and the ‘blame game’.
In various speeches and papers over the last few years (eg this one), the economist Jonathan Pincus has been the most significant dissenter from this perspective.
Pincus argues that ‘vertical competition’ – competition between the states and the Commonwealth, as opposed to the ‘horizontal competition’ between states traditionally favoured by federalists – by-and-large has served the Australian public reasonably well.
If the states perform badly, people turn to the federal government for solutions. This is pretty much what has happened. But despite the general loss of confidence in state governments, being able to turn to them to solve problems as well has its benefits. It gives voters two chances at resolving their issues. Governments at each level eager for voters respond to their concerns. The Essential Research poll shows significant minority support for the Pincus perspective.
The Pincus position seems to me to have considerable merit. The idea of horizontal competition between the states, while theoretically attractive, struggles to move beyond a few supporting examples, usually relating to tax. Not many people move states for better health or education systems (though one reason I don’t want to move back to Sydney is its dysfunctional health system). It’s far easier for citizens if governments compete for their support in the same geographic area.
So maybe we should not worry so much about the bureaucratic messiness that sometimes emerges from joint responsibility. It is the price we pay for for a system that is much more responsive overall than one based on exclusive state or federal responsibility.