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Ideas in government: renewing mandates and claiming leadership in the Australian Federation

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journal contribution
posted on 08.06.2017, 01:44 by Keddie, J. N., Smith, R. F. I.
This case study of policy initiatives of an Australian state government shows how sub-national governments can use ideas as drivers for national agendas to reinforce their identity as states and promote themselves as proponents of reform initiatives in government generally. Federations of strong central governments and subordinate sub-national governments are constantly adjusting the balance of power between them. Sub-national governments such as states or provinces, which make up a middle tier of government, face a loss of independence when confronted by federal government 'vertical' fiscal control and international economic, trade and cultural pressures that derogate from their residual powers. Local government, as a third tier, also competes for attention and relevance as the appropriate service provider and manager of available resources. A federal government, citing demands for efficiency, can choose to bypass a subnational government, deal directly with local government and undermine the public perception of the middle tier. Sub-national governments may thus be seen as mere conduits – and not necessarily the preferred conduits – between distant central authorities and citizens. Yet unless federations move to a unitary system, sub-national governments must be accommodated as active partners in policy development and service delivery – or risk becoming expensive 'shells'. In Australia, the role of the states in recasting themselves as active participants in national policy arenas has been variously described as collaborative or competitive federalism. The states use collaboration and competition to complement one another as they propose policy resolutions in response to changing demands from citizens, other tiers of government, and external influences arising from globalization and concerns about terrorism and national security. This study focuses on Victoria, the second largest Australian state by population. It examines how Victoria handles ideas-driven policy, drawing widely on initiatives and people in other governments and in the private sector. Victoria is carving out a role in entrepreneurial policy leadership through initiatives under the National Reform Agenda, which takes the economic and structural reforms of the 1990s and moves them forward into areas of human capital, health, education, infrastructure and further rounds of regulatory reform. Where the state's power is in question or weakened, it responds with claims for the priority of its policy ideas. Three examples of ideas-driven policy are examined: national water policy, strategies to combat rises in type 2 diabetes, and strategies to improve numeracy and literacy among school children. Competing political powers, professional authorities, organised interests and proponents of ideas strive for national influence on each issue. Ideas-based proposals are central to vigorous contests in managing infrastructure, health and education. How these contests are resolved may be crucial to the future of federation as a real rather than symbolic description of Australian government, and may provide lessons for federations elsewhere, and indeed for governments that, while not formally federated, comprise a multiplicity of communities and levels.


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Department of Management.

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