The state we’re in: redrawing Australia

The Force from the North, Bob Katter, doesn’t do anything by halves.

His independent compatriot Rob Oakeshott has spent the last week pushing out ideas about parliamentary reform, a new politics of consensus, and Team of Rivals-style cabinet government.

Katter’s contribution has been a little more out of the box. On Thursday he proposed a wholesale redrawing of Australia’s state boundaries.

The plan is as follows:

Queensland gets neatly split in two, from about Rockhampton. South Queensland gets everything from Byron Bay to Bundaberg. North Queensland gets the rest, including, of course, Katter’s own electorate of Kennedy.

The Northern Territory loses a fair chunk of its south to an engorged South Australia, but its western border gets pushed out all the way to the ocean, taking the Kimberley and Broome from Western Australia. The new state – it’d be a state – would be renamed North-Western Australia, leaving Australia with an embarrassingly unimaginative bunch of state names.

Katter reckons new states would allow the country to better exploit the resources of the north, to become a food bowl, and accommodate 100,000 extra people.

Perhaps I’m taking Katter’s plan more seriously than anybody should. But you know what? It’s not a bad idea.

In 2010, it’s extremely refreshing to see a politician stand up for the very existence of states. From all sides of politics we’re far more likely to hear states are anachronistic relics of the 19th century – frustrating barriers to good policy. Not everybody goes so as far as arguing states should be eliminated entirely, but most are eager for the federal government to intrude further and further into state areas of responsibility.

One of Katter’s arguments for his plan is more important than it first seems. “I don’t know of anywhere else in the world where people are governed by a government thousands of kilometres away,” he told the Northern Territory News.

Indeed, one of the key ideas behind a federal system is that the nearer a government is to the people it governs, the more likely it will govern in their interests. The needs and desires of citizens in Victoria and the Northern Territory sharply diverge. Katter is arguing the needs of those in Coolangatta and those in Mount Isa, nearly 2,000 kilometres away, can be just as different. There is little reason to doubt it.

So when Katter talks about living in a “North Queensland paradigm” instead of an “Australia paradigm”, it actually makes a bit of sense. Many in his electorate no doubt agree; Katter’s two candidate preferred result was a massive 69 per cent.

Katter’s antipathy towards free trade and the economic reform of the last few decades has become very well-known over the last week.

Not only can states tailor their policies to the needs of their electorate, they act as policy incubators. Policies can be tested in an individual state before being adopted elsewhere. If policies don’t work, well, at least the damage is limited.

So more states, more experimentation.

If Katter wants North Queensland to get back into the state intervention game, then that’s North Queensland’s prerogative.

Across the border, the expanded and empowered Northern Territory could be a low tax, low regulation zone. We’ll see which state does best.

Reconfiguring the federation would be complicated, sure.

But we have a habit of believing our existing political arrangements are fixed and therefore eternal. The Australian federation is only just over a century old. And while our constitution has barely changed, the Commonwealth is doing things that would have astonished its authors.

Western Australian secessionism keeps raising its head, and will likely get louder as the rest of the country tries to expropriate the gains from mining in that state.

The boundaries of Australia are not written in stone. Nor should they be. Giving Bob Katter a pen to redraw the borders is radical, but not revolutionary.

Rob Oakeshott’s proposal for “consensus” government has been given serious attention, even though the corollary to his idea – having no opposition – is patently absurd. Well, maybe it’s not a bad idea if you’re engaged in total war against the Hun and the Empire of Japan, but it hardly seems appropriate in 2010.

At the same time Oakeshott is calling for consensus, he’s calling for the adoption of ideas from the Henry Tax Review and the Garnaut Climate Change Review. In other words, the most divisive reform proposals in the last few years.

Bob Katter’s plan for new states has the opposite problem. His plan seems absurd upon first glance – the NT News titled their article about his plan as “‘Cut snake’ Katter eyes Top End slice”.

But it makes a lot more sense than some of the other proposals being canvassed as we wait for a government to form.