University of New South Wales Faculty of Law Research Series
Last Updated: 19 December 2008
Beyond A Federal Structure: Is a Constitutional Commitment to a Federal
Andrew Lynch and George Williams
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This paper appeared in the University of New South Wales Law Journal, 2008, volume 31(2), pp. 395 – 434.
The galvanising purpose of Federation was the creation of the Commonwealth and the distribution of power between it and the former colonies, simultaneously elevated to Statehood. But beyond this simple fact, consensus about Australian federalism has traditionally been elusive and is, if anything, only increasingly so. While the contemporary political debate over federal reform proceeds from a shared sense that our existing arrangements have manifest shortcomings, there is far from unanimity as to which of its particular features are strengths, and which are deficiencies.
The structure of this paper is as follows. In Part II, the range of understandings as to the character of the federal relationship between Australian governments is canvassed. Consideration is given to the views of the Constitution’s Framers and commentators, but most centrally to members of the High Court since these have brought about great change in federal arrangements. The significance of the Court’s marked preference for adhering only to constitutional structure and its inability or unwillingness to develop ‘a federal jurisprudence’ is examined in two respects. First, the effect of the Court’s arid Engineers’ Case methodology has been to reject any suggestion that fidelity to a concept of ‘federal balance’ is consistent with both the contents and purpose of the Constitution and also the principles of divided government. Particular consideration is given to the limitations of a commitment to federalism in only a structural sense, as revealed by the judicial reasons of the majority and dissenting judges in the recent case of New South Wales v Commonwealth. Second, the tension between competing assumptions of the kind of federal system established by the Commonwealth Constitution has produced an unstable and uncertain environment for the development of cooperative schemes between the Commonwealth and States. In Part III we consider how an attempt to ‘constitutionalise’ the relationship between the tiers of government as one underpinned by cooperation and respect would impact on the Court’s approach. Drawing on foreign constitutions, and adapting these in light of Australia’s politico-legal conditions and history, we suggest how a commitment to cooperative federalism might best be shaped for possible inclusion in the Commonwealth Constitution.