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Grassroots political power

February 18, 2010

In a free society, the power of government should come from the people. That power should flow up from individuals to their community and then up to higher levels of government.

In reality, power is being increasingly centralised in Canberra, and that power and responsibility then trickles down to the state governments and then the local councils. At the bottom, community groups are effectively powerless.

In the “community-up” approach, each person has a real link to political power and meaningful access to their representatives. In the “Canberra-down” approach, ordinary people are isolated from the political system and are reduced to one vote out of 14 million every three years to influence the heart of power. Not only does the “Canberra-down” approach make people disconnected to democracy and disillusioned about politics, but it also leads to less diversity, less political innovation, less incentive to be efficient and effective and less choice.

To improve democracy and switch to a “community-up” approach it is necessary to return some powers to the lower levels of government and community groups. In particular, I think there are two necessary reforms — a “devolution power” (to shift political power to a lower level of government) and a “break-away power” (to allow areas to break away and form new jurisdictions).

Break-away power

Break-away refers either to the breaking away from an old state to become a new state, or breaking away from an old council to become a new council. This could include North Queensland breaking away from Queensland to become Australia’s seventh state, or it could include Noosa breaking away from the Sunshine Coast council to once again become it’s own local council.

Introducing “break-away power” would allow those Qld councils who opposed the forced council mergers to once again split away and become their own council.

The “break-away power” also provides the opportunity to remove a layer of government so that an area only has two (instead of the current three) layers of government. This could be done by a local council applying to become a state — thus combining the roles of state and local government. This would create an administration similar to that currently in the ACT.

Breaking away would allow an area to pursue policies that specifically appeal to the local area, so that the government would better represent their local constituents. This would allow greater diversity (Nth Qld could have different daylight saving laws to Qld), allow policy innovation, give people more choice and put more pressure on governments to be effective or risk a break-away.

Indeed, merely the possibility of being able to break away (and not necessarily the act) would put pressure on the government to better represent their diverse electorate. This is because the state government will be more acutely aware that their ultimate authority rests on the consent of local regions and councils, and the local councils will be more acutely aware that their ultimate authority rests on the consent of local communities.

However, it is necessary to maintain a relative degree of stability in the political systems and so it should not be easy to break away. I suggest there should be three paths to breaking away:

1) If the representative body of the parent jurisdiction agrees, then the break-away area needs to achieve a majority of >50% in a referendum of people in the break-away area; or

2) If there is at least one sponsor in the representative body of the parent jurisdiction, then the break-away area needs to achieve a super-majority of > 66% in a referendum of people in the break-away area; or

3) A unanimous agreement of all property owners in the break-away area.

These rules would ensure that an area could only break away if there was either consent from the parent jurisdiction or an overwhelming demand from the break-away area.

It should also be noted that just because a jurisdiction breaks away, that doesn’t mean that they must pursue separate policies to their previous parent jurisdiction. For example, if New England broke away from NSW they may still choose to team up with the NSW authorities to provide a coordinated health service. Or New England may pay an agreed fee to the NSW government (or the Qld government) in exchange for police & courts.

Finally, jurisdictions would of course retain the right to merge with any other jurisdiction that agreed.

Devolution power

Break-away powers improve the incentives faced by governments and allow for greater choice, diversity, efficiency and innovation. But if we only had the “break away powers” there would still be several outstanding problems.

One issue is that there would still be no way to “break away” from the federal government, as that would split up Australia. Another issue is that it would be impossible to create a lower level of government (for example, if the people of the ACT wanted to create local governments under their territorial government).

A final issue is that the “break away” option is fairly radical and sometimes an area may want to simply gain control over one particular area but not fully break away from their parent jurisdiction.

The solution to these issues is to introduce a “devolution power” where a junior jurisdiction is able to force a parent jurisdiction to devolve power and/or responsibility on a certain issue. For example, the local councils effected by the Qld Wild Rivers legislation would have the option to force the devolution of the specific environmental legislation and then set the rules according to the desires of the local community.

The devolution powers has all of the same benefits as the break-away powers (diversity, choice, efficiency, innovation), but is useful for different circumstances. As with the break-away powers, the need for a degree of stability means that it should not be easy to force devolution. I suggest the same three paths as described above.


Of course, there are many reasons why an area may not want to break away or devolve power. There are some advantages of centralisation, such as economies of scale, potential coordination issues and a desire for uniformity. There is a balance to strike between the correct amount of centralisation and the correct amount of diversity & choice.

However, while the current approach forces an ever-increasing amount of centralisation, returning the ultimate authority to regions and communities allows each area to weigh up the benefits and costs of centralisation and the only pursue a centralist solution when it is optimal. Many areas will choose not to devolve power or break-away. But others may want greater autonomy. There is no a-priori correct level of political centralisation, and so we should let people build their own democratic system from the community up.

  1. February 19, 2010 at 2:20 am

    Now to get someone (anyone) in the state or commonwealth parliments to support this. Unfortunately I don’t see that happening. 😦

  2. duncan spender
    February 24, 2010 at 12:42 pm

    john – i’m a fan of the idea – i make the following technical comments not to discourage the idea, but to share my thoughts on things that would need to be considered in progressing it.

    re break away power:

    1. you don’t mention the key issue with divorce settlements – who gets the assets and liabilities. for the people of a region to make an informed vote to become their own council, state or country, they’d need to know what share of council/state/country assets and liabilities they’d get, and this allocation would presumably need to be agreeable to the remaining people of the original council/state/country.

    splitting financial assets and liabilities would be the most straight-forward task, but even then, would the distribution be even per capita, or would more be given to rich people in recognition of their previous contribution, or would less be given to rich people (see discussion at #3). splitting a jurisdiction’s physical assets would be complicated by the fact that many of these would be concentrated in particular hubs (eg port infrastructure) or capitals (eg courts, depts, parliaments; mega schools, unis, hospitals), even though all the jurisidiction’s taxpayers would have funded them. and some assets are intangible, like the know-how of staff in those courts, depts, hospitals, and maybe even the brand name and goodwill of the jurisdiction. liabilities can also be intangible, like obligations to support the jurisdiction’s young, old, sick and disabled.

    there would also need to clarity as to how obligations to third parties would be managed.

    2. re your three routes for breaking-up, the third option introduces a perhaps unintended complication. you seem to rely on unanimous property owners to get around an absence of support in the relevant parliament, but it could also be a way to get around an inability to get 50% or 66% of the vote – this is probably just an academic point that would only apply in a peculiar landlord-versus-tenant situation where all of the voters are renting (say, a poor suburb).

    3. you discuss the break away power in terms of a small area breaking away from a bigger area, but it is also true that a huge majority could break away, leaving only a tiny area. would you be happy with this? maybe the rest of qld would break away from inala. maybe this isn’t a problem, particularly if the distribution of assets under discussion #1 took into account the ‘asset’ of access to the rest of the world.

    re devolution power

    4. couldn’t the break away power achieve a lot of what your devolution power does: (i) i can’t see why the idea of a break away power couldn’t allow a state to become its own country, just like you envisage it would allow a council to become its own state – they’re both essentially rights to secede, and (ii) couldn’t the break away power allow each subregion of a jurisdiction to decide to become its own jurisdiction, and then cooperate on some things?

    5. i’m assuming that if you take over a function you take over the responsibility to fund it. this would create problems hinted at under discussion #1, ie would you be comfortable with the cherry picking that would entail?

    eg lifecyle-based cherry picking. a council area with lots of oldies could take over responsibility for policies that benefit young people so as to avoid paying taxes for them (even though they previously benefited from them) but could still enjoy the state’s policies towards oldies.

    eg cherry picking based on geographical idiosyncrasies. would you be comfortable with a mining town taking responsibility for resources policy so as to avoid royalties flowing to those not living within view of the mine, and to generate negative environmental externalities for those not living within view of the mine, eg downstream?

    and how would overheads be dealt with – the costs that are hard to attribute to any particular policy area?

    shouldn’t the remaining taxpayers in a jurisdiction have a right to say “take it or leave it: if you don’t like policy X, then break away”?

    i think a power to to make a clean break (subject to divorce settlement rules) would be a whole lot simpler than a cherry picking power.

  3. February 26, 2010 at 7:44 am

    Some good points Dunc. I had thought about the net asset issue and have some rough thoughts. I think a “per capita” split makes most sense. Even for physical assets, I think there would be a way of splitting ownership. There is an issue of who will be the “judge” for the divorce… but I don’t think that’s a game breaker.

    The financial consequences of devolution are also tricky, but I think solvable. If you devolve a spending program, you get equivalent funding (or taxing powers). If you devolve a tax, you must contribute the equivalent amount back up to the higher level of government (or take spending responsibility). If you devolve regulation, no problem.

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