28 June 2011

Bob Hawke and Nick Greiner's grand bargain

A grand bargain realigning state and federal taxation streams and responsibilities was mooted during the early 1990s.

The history was set out in the Victorian Parliament’s Federal-State Relations Committee Inquiry Into Overlap and Duplication of Roles and Responsibilities Between the Commonwealth and the State; and Areas of Responsibility for Which the States Should Have an Enhanced Role for the Benefits of the Federation:

6.22 The impetus for change to Australia’s federal system arose from a conjunction of political conditions. Bob Hawke, a Labor Prime Minister, and Nick Greiner, a Liberal Premier, shared common goals of microeconomic liberalisation and Commonwealth-State relations reform, as well as a common managerialist perspective on government. The fact that all the other State Premiers were Labor reduced differences among them over the agenda for change. The combination of a strong leader among the Premiers and a consensus oriented Prime Minister led to the adoption of a collaborative, consensual approach. This bipartisan, Commonwealth-State political commitment to the creation of a truly integrated national economy, and to the rationalisation of government roles, ensured momentum at the early stage.

6.23 The Hawke-Greiner partnership is symbolic of an implied comprehensive exchange. The microeconomic liberalisation that the Commonwealth was seeking would lead to uniformity of regulation, and a lessening of State intervention in the economy. In return for this reduction in their power, a realignment of roles and responsibilities, in combination with fiscal reform, would grant the States revenue and autonomy adequate to their expenditure responsibilities. The agenda was broader under Hawke than at any subsequent stage, and this comprehensive exchange seemed a real possibility.

6.24 This potential exchange collapsed in late 1991, with Paul Keating’s challenge to the Labor leadership. Keating sensed that Hawke did not have the support of the Labor caucus for fiscal and program devolution, and proceeded from late October 1991 to challenge Hawke largely on these grounds.

Keating's action dismayed the premiers. They read out consistent statements in their respective state parliaments.

For instance Wayne Goss told the Queensland Parliament:

……Twelve months ago (in 1990), a new process for reforming the Australian Federation was commenced in Brisbane. That process sought to rationalise the financial relationship between the Commonwealth and the States, to rationalise functional responsibilities between the various levels of Government in order to minimise duplication and to improve the economic efficiency of the country through the implementation of wide-ranging micro-economic reforms.

As the Prime Minister and the Premiers agreed in the Sydney communique, the Perth conference would— “consider the crucial and interrelated issues of reform of Commonwealth/State financial arrangements including reviewing the distribution of taxation powers to reduce vertical fiscal imbalance and a clearer definition of the roles and responsibilities of the respective Governments in the areas of program and service delivery . . .”

In preparation for the Perth conference the States, large and small, Labor and conservative, developed a position paper containing a range of proposed reforms. First and foremost, the States agreed on a shared national income tax proposal whereby an agreed percentage of national income tax receipts would be returned to the States. This was to be achieved by a parallel reduction in financial assistance grants to the States and a reduction by the same percentage in the Commonwealth income taxation rate. This meant no increased taxation burden for Australian taxpayers. This meant providing the States with access to a growing source of revenue capable of guaranteeing our delivery of crucial services into the future. This also meant no diminution in the Commonwealth’s capacity to manage the national economy.

Secondly, the States advocated the establishment of a council of the Australian Federation comprised of the heads of Government of the Commonwealth and the States. This body was to provide a continuing mechanism through which the range of micro-economic reforms already initiated in this process could be sustained in the future.

It was also to provide a means by which rational decisions could be taken on the future delineation of functional responsibilities between the two levels of Government. Most critically, this proposed council was to assist in lifting the vision of both the Commonwealth and the States above their own narrow and immediate interests and to concentrate instead on the pursuit of the national interest.

Yesterday in the Commonwealth Parliament the Prime Minister stated that the Commonwealth Government could not support the States’ “shared national income tax proposal”. However, in rejecting this option, the Commonwealth Government has not advanced any sound policy reason as to why this proposal is unacceptable. Indeed, a joint report prepared by the Commonwealth and State Treasuries indicated that proposals such as the one advocated by the States would result in a significant reduction in vertical fiscal imbalance without compromising the Commonwealth’s legitimate requirement to maintain macro-economic control and without violating the principles of fiscal equalisation.

Furthermore, the same Treasuries’ report notes that other successful federations, for example, the United States,Canada and West Germany, are able to manage their national economies with markedly lower levels of vertical fiscal imbalance than Australia.

Regrettably, my colleagues—the other Premiers—and I have concluded that the States’ taxation reform proposal has been jettisoned for reasons other than those of a policy nature. Notwithstanding last-minute discussions late yesterday and again today, it appears that the Commonwealth is immoveable on this point. Given this position, and given that the reform of Commonwealth/State financial relations is fundamental to the whole reform of Australian federalism, the States reluctantly concluded that it was impossible to proceed with the Perth conference. To do so would have been to yield sound policy to the requirements of political expediency. …..

Whilst the discussions that led to the implementation of the 1995 competition policy agreements continued, the opportunity of a ‘grand bargain’ was lost.

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