Have you ever read the Australian Constitution? I know that sound ridiculous, and of course very few of us have, but it’s not actually as onerous as it’s contents page would lead you to believe. That said, I only really read it once I became a teacher, and I daresay that unless you teach Humanities (or good ol’ SOSE), or you’re in the Law profession, you probably don’t feel particularly drawn to reading the Constitution. BUT, if you do then you may find it even more interesting as you watch our particular brand of federalism playout against the backdrop of a global pandemic.
The Constitution makes it clear that Australia is a federation of States. Prior to 1901 each of the six States were self-governing colonies of Britain, and the writers of the Constitution were keen to keep the States at the level of power to which they were accustomed. Of course they were, they were politicians after all and then, as now, politicians like to hold on to power. Thus, the Constitution grants limited powers to the Commonwealth, and where it’s not stated the power falls to the States. And each State (and Territory) has their own governments and parliaments, and it is in the interest of those politicians to ensure their state’s constituents get the best deal they can.
Because as we’ve seen before, and especially now, the States really do operate like different countries at times. And while in good times our differences may amount to good-natured jokes about people with two-heads, the gullies south of the border, or the northerners who can’t spell beer (XXXX), during difficult times it can amount to hard borders, troops along borders, and real animosity between States, and populations.
It’s hard to say, when they enshrined federalism in the Constitution, whether it’s creators could have anticipated this.
Over the years the Commonwealth has gained more and more power from the States, and undoubtedly this will continue, but it’s doubtful whether the end of the Federation is in sight. For starters, we’d need a referendum to create one and they are notoriously hard to win. And even if the States could be dissolved, would we want to? Could a central government manage a country as physically big and diverse as Australia?