Division of powers

  • Powers are distributed between a central government and various regional governments.
  • If any one government gains too much or too little power, the federal balance is upset and it falls apart
  • Canada is a relatively centralised system, with the powers of the provinces defined, leaving residual powers to the central government
  • In Australia, “We should most strictly define and limit the powers or central government, and leave all other powers not so defined to the local legislatures.”
  • Constitutional powers can be affected by time and changing circumstances.
  • Boundaries on division of powers are changeable.
  • In Australia, there is an overlap of powers, so cooperative federalism is operating.

Federal intention

  • US influence
    • have two houses of parliament, the upper house providing representatives of the regions
      • House of Reps to be allocated seats in proportion to population, min 5 for original states (s 24)
      • Senate to have equal representation from each State
    • A High Court would be set up to settle disputes arising from the Constitution, between States etc.
  • UK influence – Westminster System of Responsible Government
  • Swiss – Method of changing the Constitution, except no provision for popularly initiated or State initiated.

Accretion of Commonwealth power

  • World Wars, enabling the C’th to exercise greater powers that did not disappear in peacetime
  • Internationalisation and globalisation, making foreign affairs and economic policy more important
  • Failure of the Senate to act as the State’s House, it is more of the Party House
  • The preparedness of the High Court to interpret the Constitution favourably towards the Commonwealth
  • The national government has increasingly controlled the national purse strings
  • Australians have tended to look increasingly to the national government for assistance in many matters formerly the sole preserve of the States.
  • Commonwealth gov’ts have tended to focus on their own needs, policies and preferences before those of the States, with the assumption that the national view is the most important.

The Australian Model

  • The founders sought to protect as many State powers as possible:
    • The Senate as the State’s House, with equal numbers of reps from each OS
    • The C’th’s powers are defined, (and therefore limited), with the residual powers remaining with the States
    • The residual powers are considerable
    • Ss 106, 107 and 108 safeguards the rights of the States
    • Amendments to the Constitution affecting a particular State needs to have a majority in that State.

Undermining of the Model

Party Politics

  • See notes on how party affects federalism debate
  • Labor PMs have often worked to reduce the States’ power, see Curtin and Chifley on Uniform Tax
  • States governed by a different party to the C’th often get less money
  • States governed by different parties are usually less agreeable to policies
    • Said Howard Minister ‘de facto members of the Federal Opposition’


  • C’th gov’ts have tended to focus on their own needs and policies before those of the States, assuming that the national view is more important than the regional ones
  • Similarly, State gov’ts have seen policies through the lens of regional needs, without seeing that it may be more beneficial in the national interest
  • Such attitudes can overturn political party priorities: State Labor is more protective of the Federal system, whilst C’th Liberals tend to distort the Federal balance more than their State counterparts.

Commonwealth Financial Dominance

Refer to VFI.

Where the system retains value


  • Cooperation between gov’ts have allowed the federation to run very smoothly on areas without conflict
  • Three important structures have enabled this:
    • Constitutional reasons – the Constitution created a concurrent, cooperative federation with various powers shared
    • The need for intergovernmental cooperation has increased due to the financial dependence of the States and the C’th
    • There must be cooperation to cover policy areas not covered in the Constitution due to changes in technology etc.
  • Much had been achieved through COAG, formerly the Premier’s Council

Local decision making

  • States are closer to the people, and can make good local policy makers


  • States act as a social laboratory.
  • One State can implement a policy, if disastrous, the other States will not be affected
  • If it works, other States may implement it
  • E.g. Victoria introducing compulsory seat belts
  • E.g. WA’s OBE fiasco, the States now know what to avoid
  • There is no guarantee that mistakes will not be made by the Feds

Where the system falls short

Too much bureaucracy?

  • Because areas of policy are shared by different levels, duplication of services may occur
  • According to the Business Council of Australia, the cost of the duplication and inefficiency is $9 billion a year. Could be up to $20 bil.
  • There may be inconsistencies between States and confusing legislation
  • People may get confused as to which level is responsible for what

Avoidance of responsibility

  • Governments may try to blame inaction on concurrent powers on the other level

You may also like...

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: