MLS experts lead debate of federal reform

An open discussion into democratic federal reform was launched by Melbourne Law School Laureate Professor Cheryl Saunders AO in an interview with political journalist Jonathon Green at the 2015 John Button Oration last night.

Professor Cheryl Saunders with Jonathon Green

Professor Cheryl Saunders with Jonathon Green at the 2015 John Button Oration.

Hosted by Melbourne School of Government at Melbourne Town Hall, the event saw the release of 10 key principles developed in response to the Commonwealth's discussion paper and stated commitment to produce a White Paper on Federation Reform.

Professor Saunders developed the principles, drawn up for Australia in light of similar reform abroad, with Professor Michael Crommelin AO, Dean of MLS from 1989-2007.

The constitutional law expert said the draft discussion paper released by the Government late last month identified many of the problems federalism reform should tackle, including giving more power back to the states, but lacked guidance in how to do it and why.

"The discussion paper's reasoning is inconsistent and too opaque to encourage the public comment it purports to seek," Professor Saunders said.

"It does not lead to clear conclusions, or even choices, leaving outcomes to horse-trading at best."

Speaking to a capacity audience, Professor Saunders said she was not confident the draft paper was moving in the right direction because it was "too bureaucratic."

"We need to think of federalism reform through the lens of democracy," she said.

"(They) are very much intertwined. If we do believe in federal reform and democracy, we should say so."

When asked how democracy could be reinvigorated, Professor Saunders suggested getting "more talented Australians into government."


1. The purpose of federalism reform should be to invigorate and enrich Australian democracy.

2. In Australia, democracy is organised through different levels of government, each of which derives limited authority to govern from the Australian people, or a segment of them, to whom it is accountable.

3. Democratic accountability relies on the elected Parliaments of the Commonwealth and the States and territories, in which public deliberation on significant decisions can take place and through which transparency can be secured.

4. The Australian Constitution confers limited authority on both the Commonwealth and State levels of government having regard to which level of government is more appropriate to do what.

5. Dealings between levels of government must be conducted with the mutual respect, trust and good faith that are due to democratically elected representatives of the Australian people.

6. Intergovernmental collaboration is an integral part of Australian federal democracy when properly used; it should be undertaken only for purposes that are clear and publically justifiable by reference to a specific need, using mechanisms that are consistent with democratic principle and practice.

7. The Australian Constitution provides authority to the Commonwealth level of government to raise the public revenues that are required not only to meet its own constitutional responsibilities but also to assist the States to meet theirs.

8. Each State is accountable to the people of the State for the expenditure of public moneys derived from public revenues raised by the Commonwealth but surplus to its own constitutional responsibilities.

9. Australian federal democracy recognises a principle of solidarity that requires horizontal sharing of public revenues to redress substantial economic disparities among States and territories.

10. The values of the composite concept of Australian federal democracy apply also in relation to other levels of Australian government, including indigenous self-government, local and city government and territory government.

By Andy Walsh