Governance reform is increasingly understood in terms of partnerships, flexibility and growth in the 'non-institutionalised' forms of decision-making, but what do Australians make of the governmental institutions still so crucial to the theory and reality of governance? In Australian discussions about new spatial approaches to governance, this question is especially fundamental because in its relatively brief 200 year post-colonisation history, Australia has come to have an unusually centralised system of government. This article explores the attitudes of Australian citizens towards their existing key institutions of governance, in particular the federal political system in its various spatial and hierarchical dimensions. We present some key findings from a random sample survey of 502 New South Wales rural and urban residents in late 2005, building on an earlier survey of 301 Queensland residents undertaken in 2001. The surveys indicate attitudes towards the present system and preferences regarding change, including options from new states to stronger regional institutions within the current framework. Findings are reported against demographic and other characteristics, including levels of satisfaction with present systems. Interstate and urban-regional comparisons are made. We conclude that high popular interest in change, which transcends the 'urban-rural' divide to a much higher degree than anticipated, provides a strong basis for a more open and less partisan political debate about institutional reform than may have been possible for some decades.
Keywords: Federalism; Institutional reform; Regionalism; Urban-rural divide.
A crucial question facing all communities, as processes of governance evolve, is whether they have the right institutional framework to support those decisionmaking processes that they collectively deem desirable and effective. On one hand, modern debates about 'governance' have certainly shifted beyond simply analysing fixed institutions of government, which are no longer seen as the key 'drivers' of governance. 'Governance' in its broadest sense describes 'the processes by which institutions, both state and non-state, interact' to manage the affairs of a community or nation (Weller 2000, p.4). Recently in Australia, as elsewhere, we see a much stronger focus on the roles of individuals, interest groups and networks in governance; on knowledge, ideas and capacity to innovate; on the resources available to actors irrespective of their institutional position; and on the great intricacy and dynamism of collective decision-making processes. Gone are the days - if they ever existed - when we expected national Constitutions to explicitly guide the detailed daily exercise of political power; or for passage of legislation by a parliament to necessarily guarantee a desired social or economic result; or, in the language of Star Trek, for a government directive for the implementation of policy to itself 'make it so'.
On the other hand, while formal institutions are no longer seen as sole or primary drivers of governance, we must remember their ongoing fundamentality. Formal institutions are still ever-present actors. They remain the primary custodians (and consumers) of society's collective financial and technical resources when tackling any given policy problem. Federal and state constitutions continue to determine how public policy, resources and electoral and executive politics interact to facilitate desired outcomes - or indeed frustrate them. Much can be talked about, but only so much done without the collection of public revenues, appropriation of dollars, support of departments, deployment of expertise and roll-out of incentives and sanctions legitimated by law. We may no longer place primary reliance on legislators and public officials to devise and implement policy responses, but their power and momentum are still needed to realise the answers; and if not mobilised in the right direction, they have an inertia which even the most inspired innovation will not overcome. …