30 November 2010

A UQ TC Beirne School of Law researcher has been awarded a prestigious Australian Research Council Future Fellowship to undertake an analysis of the distribution of power between the Commonwealth and the States.

The $880,000 Fellowship was awarded to Professor Nicholas Aroney for a five-year international research project entitled, Reconceiving Australian federalism: fundamental values, comparative models and constitutional interpretation.

Professor Aroney said reform of Australia’s federal system was an urgent, national priority.

“As the poorly coordinated American government response to the Hurricane Katrina disaster demonstrated, the capacity of governments in federal countries to respond to national emergencies and threats is profoundly shaped by the efficiency of their inter-governmental arrangements,” he said.

“In Australia, the effectiveness of governmental responses to pressing national issues such as the failing Murray-Darling river system, chronic underfunding of hospitals and the plight of Indigenous Australians, as well as our ability to respond to international issues such as global terrorism, climate change and the world financial crisis, are notoriously hampered where there is lack of clarity about the division of responsibilities between the Commonwealth and the States.”

But Professor Aroney said that the efficiency of government responses to urgent problems was not the only way in which Australia ought to assess the suitability of its federal system.

“As the framers of the Constitution were acutely aware, federal systems prevent any one single government from altogether dominating the political direction of the country, a characteristic which contributes to government accountability, and the placing of checks and balances on government power," he said.

"The framers also believed that a federal system would provide more opportunities for public participation in self-government than a unitary system could.

“The central aim of the project is to undertake a rigorous, systematic and comparative enquiry into the fundamental concepts, principles and values that underlie the Australian federal system and which ought to guide its ongoing development and reform.

"Too many proposals for reform have ignored the fundamental values that undergird our system.

"Also, far too many reform proposals have failed because they have involved totally unrealistic expectations of what can be achieved within the constitutional framework.”

Professor Aroney said the research project would be divided into four stages over the five year fellowship period.

“The first stage will be to assess current and past reform proposals and to compare the assumptions behind those reform proposals and the values embedded within the existing federal system," he said.

"The second stage will closely investigate the High Court’s approach to the interpretation of the Constitution, for High Court decisions have profoundly shaped the balance of power between the Commonwealth and the States.

"The third stage will involve comparison with other federal systems, noting their strengths and weaknesses within the context of their particular political cultures and social traditions.

"The fourth and final stage will draw conclusions about the path of future reform drawing on the research as a whole.

“This will be a far reaching and thorough investigation and will involve collaboration with leading experts in Australia as well as scholars and research institutions from several other federal systems, such as the United States, Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Belgium, Spain, India, Malaysia, Nigeria and the European Union.”

Professor Nicholas Aroney (07 3365 3053, n.aroney@law.uq.edu.au) or
Lynda Flower, School of Law Marketing (07 3365 2523, l.flower@law.uq.edu.au)