Australia centralizes as Britain devolves

Kaye DarvenizaThis week I met Kaye Darveniza, an Australian MP (Australian Labor Party) from the State Parliament of Victoria, in Melbourne. She was touring the UK investigating the effects of devolution. In the brief below, she points out that Australia is centralizing just as the UK decentralizes. She thought the political impulse came from the sheer size of Australia – citizens want to integrate and share as much in common to mitigate the effects of distance from each town, city and state and so strengthen the unity and sense of one country. It was an interesting discussion and her brief to us worth quoting.

The direction of Australian government in the last two decades has accelerated towards greater centralization of the power and authority of the federal government with a commensurate diminishing role for the state and territory governments. In areas such as health and education, traditionally the preserve of state governments, the federal government now plays the dominant role while provisions granting power to the Commonwealth in areas such as interstate trade and corporate regulation have been progressively re-interpreted to give the federal government a paramount role in all aspects of the economy, trade and industry, finance and taxation.

While the role of the states and territories has diminished, municipal government has remained weak.  There is current discussion in Australia about the need to recognise the role and functions of local government in the Constitution Act.

By contrast, in the same period the United Kingdom has seen increased devolution of power to regional assemblies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, creating, perhaps a quasi-federation. This has caused some to consider whether there’s a need for an `England-only’ legislature perhaps comprised only of those Westminster MPs elected from English constituencies.

The confirmation of a referendum on Scottish independence in 2014, and the Cameron government’s inducement of `devolution plus’ for Scotland to remain in the Union, gives these issues even greater currency. Presumably greater devolution for Scotland would increase calls for greater general devolution?

Is UK devolution merely a measure to manage nationalist tensions or does handing greater control to regional government make good  sense in its own right? Is Britain getting better government from devolution, regardless of its origin, and if so are there reasons for Australia moving in the opposite direction?

How does devolution change the role of local government in the UK? Is there room for three layers of government? Do regional governments take over some of the roles previously performed by local government? (In Australia it is often argued that we could abolish the states if we had a national government complemented by strong, efficient, large-scale municipal government delivering the services once provided by the states).Is there any evidence in Britain that devolution increases the sense of citizens’ `ownership’ of government and encourages participation in the political process?  If regionalization/devolution is beneficial, is there a case for greater devolution within England?