The introduction to today’s edition of Crikey contains the familiar assertion that Australia is:
...one of the most over-governed societies in the world, burdened with three layers of government for its tiny population...
Whenever anyone starts telling me how tiny Australia is I want to reach for a blunt instrument, and then settle for crunching a few numbers.
So let us have a look at the proposition that we have a tiny population.
The online CIA Factbook lists 238 polities that it describes as countries (see them ranked by population here). They range from China with its population of 1.3 billion to the Pitcairn Islands with their tiny population of 48.
To give a feel for how “tiny” we are, here is where various elements of our national polity sit within that ranking scale:
- Australia as a whole, with its population of 21.3 million, is ranked as #56, which puts it comfortably inside the top 25%.
- If you want to leave out the micro-polities, there are 158 countries with populations of more than 1 million (thereby including Cyprus but leaving out of consideration countries like Fiji, Qatar, Bahrain, Bhutan, Malta and Brunei). Australia at #56 sits just outside the top third of those countries with >1 million.
- New South Wales on its own, with 6.7 million, would clock in at #104, behind Laos but ahead of Libya, and comfortably inside the top 50% on the list.
- Victoria with its 5.5 million has about the same population as Denmark, which means that it would sit at #110 or #111, again in the top 50%.
- Tasmania, which we think of as tiny, has a population of 500,000, which would put it behind Macau at #170 (still 68 administrations governing smaller populations) but ahead of Luxembourg. Unlike these two, it has a substantial slice of territory to worry about – it governs the 26th largest island in the world.
- The ACT with its 350,000 sits between Brunei at #176 and ahead of Belize.
- Even the Northern Territory with its mere 227,000 is on a par with the Netherlands Antilles at #183 and has 55 smaller populations below it. And with its responsibility for 1.35 million sq. km. (0.5 million square miles), who would begrudge them an administration of their own.
Size matters to governments, because with size comes distance, geographic, climatic and biological diversity and a range of other things that suggest that it is OK for the Northern Territory to be governed by a different bunch of people than Tasmania.
We are, however, seriously over-governed. We are over-governed because over the century since Federation, and particularly in the forty years since Jolly John Gorton discovered s.96 of the Constitution, enabling the Commonwealth to make grants of financial assistance to the States on terms and conditions determined by the Commonwealth, we have had national governments who have decided that telling the States how they can do their jobs better is much more fun (and provides many more opportunities for pork-barrelling) than worrying about boring old stuff like defence, foreign policy, trade, customs and immigration.
In pursuit of that pleasure the Commonwealth has set up a massive parallel bureaucracy to micro-manage every aspect of State Government administration, thereby minimising the opportunities States have for innovation and the opportunities their electors have to make local choices about priorities or ways of doing things.
There is nothing wrong with a country with the size and population of Australia having three layers of government. If you want to eliminate “over-government”, let’s get back to having the Commonwealth concentrate on its national responsibilities and let the States get on with theirs.