Word on the street (ie all over mainstream news outlets, on social media and in pubs across the north) has it that there is a push for a new state of North Queensland. A new state, they say, that is truly representative of the needs of those in the north, and one that will equitably distribute state finances and finally provide the infrastructure the north needs.
The issue is as old as federation itself and certainly, the Constitution provides for a fairly straightforward reception of new states into the federation – subject to the agreement of the parliament of the relevant state. So – legally possible, but likely politically unviable as states presumably seek to retain their stake in national taxation revenues, and their political power base. It is difficult to imagine that the relatively small population in the north could outvote the populous south-east of the state, to effect such radical change. It is also difficult to imagine the economic viability of the north as its own state.
The real problem though for those who call for North Queensland secession, is that they smack of parochialism and are therefore treated with derision by those in the south. This buries the real issue underlying the movement. While a new state might be the wrong solution, calls for a split state signal a deeper problem of our system of governance that deserves attention.
The latest push started slowly, with an announcement from Brisbane about state infrastructure spending. I noted at the time the lack of big infrastructure spending north of Townsville. There is no doubt we are sensitive up here to the distribution of funding and its impact on regional development. Queensland’s northern state MPs – Robbie Katter, Shane Knuth, Rob Pyne, and Billy Gordon – quickly indicated that they would use their combined power on the cross benches to push for better infrastructure funding for the north.
Before we knew it, this had morphed into a call for a referendum on a separate state, albeit with the support of only three of the cross-bench MPs (all but Billy Gordon, who describes the push as ’emotive’). Federal politicians got on board and the question escalated again with federal member Warren Entsch calling for the secession of the entire northern Australia. The Queensland Premier bought in, suggesting that Queensland get bigger, not smaller, by annexing part of northern New South Wales. (Separatism in New South Wales is a whole other story.)
Chris Berg has described the issue as a classic holiday-season news story – and to some extent it is. In reality though, the question of adequate representation from the capitals is never far from the consciousness of those who live in regional Australia, especially North Queensland. With our long history of dreaming of a separate state, it is no wonder that the question is frequently part of the general conversation up here, out of earshot of those in the seats of power.
The experience up here is that neither Canberra nor Brisbane truly understands the way things work for the north. The size of our political jurisdiction means that we in the north are simply too far away from the seats of power to gain any real traction. Despite the current state treasurer having a seat in the north, there remains at least a perception of a north/south divide. Berg recognises the challenges inherent in governing such a huge area and in doing so identifies governance as the real issue underlying the secession mentality. Rather than thinking about new political boundaries, we should instead be considering better and Berg argues, more democratic, modes of governance.
Berg examines the ‘ideal size’ of a political jurisdiction using population as a measure and arguing for many more states centered on smaller populations. In a similar vein although not population based, Allan Dale has examined the problem of governance for the north in particular. He has written on sustainable community and economic development, making the case for what he calls ‘endemic regionalism’, a system of governance whereby solutions for the north might be found from within the north. He recognises that the north is not a homogeneous region but consists of unique, interconnected regions. The diverse communities, industries, and ecosystems in this part of the world thus require diverse and tailored solutions to promote development.
Similar ideas exist in an urban context. The Brookings Institute has recently reported on the importance of devolution in a metropolitan context. This concept of governance meets the need for ‘rapid, locally-tailored solutions that take a holistic approach to problem solving’. They are based upon a more organic conceptualisation of jurisdiction. So while Berg examines the ideal population size, Dale and Brookings Institute are looking more at a combination geographic/environmental demarcation.
Today there is talk from Canberra of a allowing the states to levy income tax. Is this an early sign of the stirrings of devolution? Probably not, as it maintains the existing state jurisdictions, and fails to grapple with the diverse needs of diverse regions nation-wide. But it may be a start to thinking more creatively about how we share the nation’s wealth to empower communities.
We need not necessarily call for new states, or larger states. What we do need is a more effective way of empowering both regional and metropolitan communities to design and enact their own solutions to meet local needs. In my view, this is what North Queensland secession is all about. Governments at all levels would do well to look beyond their stereotypes of the parochial northerner and beyond rigid state boundaries, and to think more creatively about governance for all Australians.