Ninety years ago, Pope Pius XI warned against the problems of taking power away from individual communities when he coined the modern principle of “subsidiarity”. The malaise affecting modern, western democracy has much to do with us ignoring his wisdom. This trend has been personified most recently through Bob Brown’s sanctimonious convoy to central Queensland. Senator The Hon Matt Canavan is Deputy Leader of The Nationals in the Senate & Minister for Resources and Northern Australia and a Queenslander who watched the Bob Brown at close range. On Tuesday 6 August, Matt Canavan addressed The Sydney Institute and discussed the connections between subsidiarity and the Greens.

A POPE AND A GREENIE: WHY MORE POWER SHOULD BE GIVEN TO LOCALS

MATT CANAVAN

During the recent election, Bob Brown decided it was a good idea to travel into the heart of coal mining country and lecture everybody about how evil their livelihoods were. While on the road the convoy tweeted a photo of the picturesque cliffs near Springsure with the comment that they didn’t realise how beautiful Central Queensland was.

As a proud Central Queenslander, to me this summed up the folly of their entire endeavour. Their comment revealed that they must have had a very different impression of what Central Queensland looked like before arriving for the very first time. I can’t be sure what their expectations were, but their surprise suggested that they probably had visions of a Mordor-like wasteland, with orc-like creatures constantly emerging from coal mines spewing sulfur-laced emissions over a barren landscape.

If you are going to denounce the practices of a whole region as evil, then perhaps you should seek to visit the place before you do.

If you are going to denounce the practices of a whole region as evil, then perhaps you should seek to visit the place before you do.

The busybody approach to modern politics, where you take on a moral burden to fix the problems of others that you know little about, threatens the strength of our democracy. People are losing faith in democracy right around the western world. There are many reasons for this, but I think one is the erosion of simple respect for others and the different views that many will inevitably have in a country as large and diverse as ours.

Almost 90 years ago Pope Pius XI coined the term “subsidiarity”. In his 1931, encyclical Quadragesimo anno, the Pope wrote:

Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do. For every social activity ought of its very nature to furnish help to the members of the body social, and never destroy and absorb them.(1)

The modern interpretation of this concept has come to mean something like what was described in the 2014 discussion paper on Federation reform as “responsibility for particular areas should rest with the lowest form of social organisation capable of performing the function effectively.” (2) In my view, removing some of the poison affecting modern democracies requires us to rediscover these truths about the wisdom of the small over the power of the big.

In my view, removing some of the poison affecting modern democracies requires us to rediscover these truths about the wisdom of the small over the power of the big.

I don’t blame the green activists for their ignorance. I know little of the issues facing inner city Melbourne. I may think that hook turns are a stupid way to manage urban traffic flows (demonstrated by the evolutionary evidence that no other city, to my knowledge, has adopted this confusing practice), but then I do not travel to Melbourne condemning hook turns and telling locals to repent their ways. Melbourne can decide how to manage its traffic the way Melbourne wishes.

Good fences make for good neighbours. We should respect the different views and desires that will manifest in different parts of our country. It is one of the paradoxes that is truthful. Tolerating disagreement builds greater solidarity. Agreeing to disagree on the smaller, local things will make a stronger and more united nation on the bigger things.

What happened at the election?

Before I get to that in more detail, I do want to review what happened at the election.

As the Prime Minister said on election night “How good is Queensland?” Queensland recorded the strongest vote to the Liberal National Government – stronger than any other state at 58.4 per cent in two party preferred terms, and a 4.3 per cent swing to the LNP. If not for Queensland, the LNP would have lost the popular vote, albeit only just.

Queensland recorded the strongest vote to the Liberal National Government – stronger than any other state at 58.4 per cent in two party preferred terms, and a 4.3 per cent swing to the LNP.

The result was just as stark, however, if you break the country into other regions. The Australian Electoral Commission divides seats into four categories for demographic purposes: inner metropolitan, outer metropolitan, provincial and regional. Like the Queensland example, there are stark differences across the country.

The Labor Party won the metro areas of the country with 52.6 per cent of the two-party preferred vote but lost the regional areas (that is the provincial and rural AEC categories) with only 43 per cent of the vote.

Now the Labor Party has for a long time done better in metropolitan areas than in regional areas but the gap is getting larger. For the federal elections between 2007 and 2016, the difference in Labor’s vote between the city and country was been between 6 and 7 percentage points. At the 2019 election, the gap jumped to 9 percentage points.

These results are even starker for the ALP in rural areas. In rural Australia, the Labor Party’s primary vote has fallen from 35 per cent in 2007 to 24 per cent (less than a quarter) in 2019. And because the two party preferred vote is a two horse race, the gap between the LNP vote in the bush compared to the city has grown too.

These results are even starker for the ALP in rural areas.

The gap between city and country is growing wider.

This is not something that is only affecting Australia. Donald Trump’s election, the Brexit victory and the rise of non-mainstream parties in Europe have largely been driven by an uprising of regional voters sending a message to the elite sections of the major cities.

I am not going to have time this evening to go into all of the reasons why this divide is growing and why it is manifesting in unexpected election outcomes. It is certainly a combination of difficult economic circumstances, centralisation of decision making and political power and the rise of national and global media.

Take Townsville as an example. Townsville’s had a rough few years. At the trough of the downturn, the number of people in Townville with a job fell by more than 30,000. If the same downturn had afflicted Sydney in proportionate terms, over 800,000 people would have been without work. If 800,000 people were out of work in Sydney that might lead to some political instability.

If the same downturn had afflicted Sydney in proportionate terms, over 800,000 people would have been without work. If 800,000 people were out of work in Sydney that might lead to some political instability.

However, not every regional area has experienced an economic downturn on the scale of Townsville so this cannot be the common reason to explain regional discontent.

What is probably more common, however, is that almost all small towns have experienced the frustration of having self-appointed, self-important bureaucrats run the ruler over what they can and can’t do in their town. Whether it is what trees they can chop down, what seafood they can fish, what dams they can build and what mines they can start. The power to do simple things has shifted from those on the ground with the knowledge, history and interest, to those who live far away who know little of the local circumstances and suffer even less the effects of any mistakes that are made.

Call it the Bob Brown effect. It really, really, really frustrates people. And, it leads to very poor decisions to boot.

Why is this a problem?

Imagine you had neighbours who drove around your suburb critiquing the state of the gardens and backyards of all. They probably wouldn’t be getting too many dinner invites. But that is what the Stop Adani convoy was exactly about. Drive around Australia, fuelled by petrol, telling everyone else they are immoral and that they must repent for their use and production of fossil fuels. They are the neighbors that comment on everyone else’s weeds without mowing their own lawn.

The Adani saga went for a decade. Adani first acquired the coal tenements from Linc Energy in 2009 and have only just received the green light to start construction. The whole thing is worthy of satire but it is not a laughing matter in Central Queensland where unemployment has been high and our economic future relies on investments like this.

The Adani saga went for a decade.

It went from tragedy to farce over the past year while the Queensland Government sought to come up with crazier and crazier excuses not to develop the project. Nothing demonstrates this descent better than the absurdity of the controversy over the black-throated finch. It is one thing though that I owe thanks to the Labor Party for. I know a lot more about this little bird than I ever thought I would!

The black-throated finch is a small, canary-like bird that is found predominantly in grassy woodlands. One hundred years ago black-throated finch were abundant and populations spread from Northern New South Wales to the Atherton Tablelands in North Queensland. However, as a recent report into the finch concluded “by the 1940s they had mostly disappeared from the south-east of their former range.”

Or to put it another way, the green activists, whose natural habitats are the hipster bars and coffee shops of south-east Queensland, benefit from living in an area that has destroyed the habitat of the black-throated finch. They now hypocritically lecture others about the need for environmental protection!

Back when the inner-city Brisbane developments, that the greenies now live in were being built, there was no environmental offset policies in place, there was no need to even consider the impact of a development on birds. Things are different today, rightly so. Adani spent more than $1 million researching the habitat and behaviour of the finch. It is probable that no one has spent more on research into the finch than Adani.

Back when the inner-city Brisbane developments, that the greenies now live in were being built, there was no environmental offset policies in place, there was no need to even consider the impact of a development on birds.

The development of the Adani mine will disturb just under 10,000 hectares of the black-throated finch’s habitat if it is fully developed. In comparison, the footprint of Brisbane sits at 1,500,000 hectares.

To offset this impact Adani has agreed to reserve more than 30,000 hectares for the black-throated finch. In that area, Adani will use what it has learnt from its research to grow the appropriate grasses (the birds eat grass seeds), design watering points that best attract the finch and grow trees close to the water and food for the birds to nest. In effect, Adani will build a hotel for the black-throated finch, and do much more for its preservation than the Queensland Government is doing.

All of these plans had been worked through with Federal and State government officials over many years. Detailed versions of the plan had gone through seven drafts but then just before Christmas, the Queensland Government ordered a further review of the plans. The Queensland Government appointed a University of Melbourne academic, Professor Brendan Wintle, to provide his thoughts.

It is not clear whether Professor Wintle ever visited the Carmichael mine site. Certainly, I have had no reports of sightings of Melbourne academics in Central Queensland recently … or at least before the Stop Adani convoy arrived. Despite this lack of on the ground knowledge, Professor Whittle came to the view that the Adani project as planned was a risk to the habitat of the finch especially because the mine would impact something called the “10-mile bore”.

It is not clear whether Professor Wintle ever visited the Carmichael mine site. Certainly, I have had no reports of sightings of Melbourne academics in Central Queensland recently

It is true that the reports Adani commissioned revealed that the 10-mile bore was a favoured watering point for the finch. But with a name like 10-mile bore, more questions should perhaps be asked.

Those who are familiar with the Carmichael mine site, know that the 10-mile is a man-made bore, drilled by graziers probably more than 100 years ago to provide water for thirsty cattle. It is not a natural part of the landscape. Yet, the Queensland Government was giving serious credence to the view that a multi-billion dollar mining project, which would create thousands of jobs, should be held up to save one man-made watering point on a cattle property!

There is no way that a footpath would be built under such a strict approach. As you start to understand this, you begin to realise why people get so frustrated when decisions are taken out of their hands and given to people who live miles away and have no idea.

If this army of “no idea” bureaucrats and activists had gotten their way, things would have been much worse for the finch. Adani is going to put in more watering points to replace the 10-mile bore. Indeed, these watering points will be better for the finch because they will be designed for birds not cattle.

If this army of “no idea” bureaucrats and activists had gotten their way, things would have been much worse for the finch.

The water will be located close to the grass seeds that the finch like to eat, and the trees they like to breed in. A special design will prevent cattle competing with the birds for the water.

This is just one example of the consequences of taking decisions in a way not consistent with the principles of subsidiarity. The further decisions are from their impact, the less common sense is available and the more insulated the decision makers become from the consequences of their mistakes.

There are many examples just like the finch, some with even more serious consequences like the shameful mismanagement of national parks which increase bushfire risk in rural areas. Too many decision-making processes today are a toxic cocktail of ignorance and indifference that leads to division and frustration.

Why subsidiarity is important

When this occurs it is almost always because we are ignoring the principles of subsidiarity. When the armies of ancient Rome marched into battle their ranks were laid out in a precise formation. The front ranks were made up of the “hastate” – youths “in the first bloom of manhood” and immediately behind them were the “principes” the men in the “full vigour of life”. If these two ranks failed to make headway a third rank of proven veterans, waiting, crouching on the ground behind the first two ranks, would move forward and finish off the enemy(3). This third rank was known as the “subsidiarii” or “subsidium”. From this comes the term “subsidiarity”.

When this occurs it is almost always because we are ignoring the principles of subsidiarity.

It is important to note then that subsidiarity is not just about wanton decentralisation or devolution. It is not about leaving the local, or the frontlines, to battle for themselves. But embedded in the concept is an element of support from the higher levels of government, or the veterans in the Roman legion metaphor.

Embedded in the concept is an element of support from the higher levels of government, or the veterans in the Roman legion metaphor.

Still, the concept recognises the importance of letting small, local communities fight first for themselves. As De Tocqueville wrote that “Decentralization has, not only an administrative value, but also a civic dimension, since it increases the opportunities for citizens to take interest in public affairs; it makes them get accustomed to using freedom. And from the accumulation of these local, active, persnickety freedoms, is born the most efficient counterweight against the claims of the central government, even if it were supported by an impersonal, collective will.”(4)

There are many reasons why we should allow local, active, persnickety freedoms to thrive.

The first is hinted in the parable of the finch above. Local people will have more knowledge about what can be done locally. When decisions become removed to far away areas, often people won’t have sufficient understanding to make an informed choice. This includes the error of outsourcing detailed decision making to a “democratic vote” that includes the views of people who are not invested or have little knowledge of the problem. For example, in the Batman by-election last year, the issue of Adani became a major political talking point in the inner city electorate. The prominence of the issue affected Bill Shorten’s position such that he stated during the campaign that “He did not support Adani”. A statement we prominently displayed to Central Queensland voters during the election. This was despite a poll finding that most voters in Batman could not even identify where the Carmichael mine is.

This includes the error of outsourcing detailed decision making to a “democratic vote” that includes the views of people who are not invested or have little knowledge of the problem.

The second is the central government can only do so many things at once. In Exodus, Moses’ father-in-law advises him that he is trying to decide too many things, and that instead he should choose capable men to judge over “thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens.” They can handle the simple cases and help ease Moses’ burden and then the people will go home satisfied.

In my experience, many of the delays in resource project approvals are often not because of activist resistance, like in the Adani case. It is often simply because of overworked planning or environmental departments which struggle to meet preferred timelines. The lesson from the Moses story is not to listen to your father in law but that governments should seek to avoid the mistake of doing too much.

The third is that in a country as a large as ours there will always be different priorities in different parts of the country. The priorities of Armidale will be different from those of Artarmon. The priorities of Muswellbrook will be different from those of Mosman, and the priorities of Dubbo will be different than those of Drummoyne.

That is not to say that the different priorities of different areas are better or worse. All Australians deserve to have their issues taken up by their governments no matter whether they live in a city, in a suburb or in the bush.

All Australians deserve to have their issues taken up by their governments no matter whether they live in a city, in a suburb or in the bush.

Yet we must have political institutions that recognise and act on these differences. In my view, it is the principle purpose and reason for the important role The Nationals Party plays. Our guiding principle is that our political representatives should not just be diverse in views but diverse in geography too. The priorities of small towns are almost always different from those of larger towns and, because they struggle to have their voice heard, they need strong representatives amplifying their issues. Where you live shapes who you are and it is important that we have strong voices in our national Parliament from the smaller towns and cities. That is what we try to do in the Nationals.

The fourth is that allowing for different responses to these different challenges will counterintuitively unite the country as a whole. We do not have to agree on every policy to all be proud to be Australian. Indeed, we would have a better Australia if we agreed to disagree more often.

Policies on coal mines, dams, tax policies and even health and education settings should not be the fundamental matters that bind a nation. Our general principles should be enshrined in our constitutions and founding documents. Principles of representative democracy, free speech, equality before the law and a fair go. These are the broad concepts that we can unite around. At lower levels we should welcome and respect differences.

Policies on coal mines, dams, tax policies and even health and education settings should not be the fundamental matters that bind a nation.

Yet we have the absurd situation where the Victorian Government has promised at the last election to amend its constitution to ban fracking. Presumably the Victorian Constitution will read something like this: equality before the law, habeas corpus and no fracking!

How is the Parliament failing us?

There is a broader failure of our Parliaments to represent the geographic diversity of our nation.

I have just returned from the first three weeks of the sitting of the new Parliament. In some respects the new Senate has changed a lot. The Liberal National Government requires just four votes from the cross bench to pass laws, compared to 8 before the election.

In other respects, however, the Senate has not changed at all. Before the election, more than 80 per cent of Senators were based in capital cities. After the election more than 80 per cent of Senators were based in capital cities. In Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia 11 of the 12 Senators from each state are based in their respective capitals. Only around two-thirds of Australians live in capital cities but in the Australian Senate 80 per cent of us do.

Before the election, more than 80 per cent of Senators were based in capital cities. After the election more than 80 per cent of Senators were based in capital cities.

The biggest capital city in Australia is effectively the Australian Senate. This is a problem because it does not give a fair voice to the smaller parts of Australia.

It also violates the spirit of our constitution. Part of the role of the Senate at Federation was to provide representation to the sparsely populated states compared to the concentration of population (and therefore House of Representatives seats) in Sydney and Melbourne. And, this wasn’t just enshrined in the specific provisions relating to the Senate, Henry Parkes himself expressed something like the subsidiarity principles at the Constitutional Conventions:

I think it is in the highest degree desirable that we should satisfy the mind of each of the colonies that we have no intention to cripple their powers, to invade their rights, to diminish their authority, except so far as is absolutely necessary in view of the great end to be accomplished, which, in point of fact, will not be material as diminishing the powers and privileges and rights of the existing colonies. It is therefore proposed by this first condition of mine to satisfy them that neither their territorial rights nor their powers of legislation for the well being of their own country will be interfered with in any way that can impair the security of those rights, and the efficiency of their legislative powers (5).

Even a politician as formidable and respectable as Sir Henry Parkes broke promises!

Australia has experienced a six-fold growth in population since Federation – from under 4 million in 1901 to over 25 million now. Brisbane, Perth and Adelaide all have more than 1 million people. They receive adequate representation.

However, given the concentration of Senators in these cities, the Senate is entrenching the concentration of power in the House of Representatives, not countering it as it intended by our Founding Fathers. I believe there are strong reasons for the Senate to exist but part of that reason is to give a voice and influence to the less populated parts of Australia.

Given the concentration of Senators in these cities, the Senate is entrenching the concentration of power in the House of Representatives, not countering it as it intended by our Founding Fathers.

None of this is to denigrate the concern and care of my Senate colleagues. There are plenty of examples of Senators who live in a capital city but are doing great work to represent the interests of regional areas. Yet, I know having moved to Central Queensland to put my office in Rockhampton, there is no substitute for living in a community and feeling, not just reading about, its pulse. Talking to your baker, dropping your kids off at school, being involved in your child’s local sporting team, all of these little acts puts you more in tune with what is of local concern.

Some in the Nationals are attracted to using Section 7 of the Constitution to correct things in the Senate. That section explicitly allows Queensland to elect its Senators on a regional basis, and holds out the possibility of other States potentially doing the same. Barnaby Joyce has suggested that states be split into six regions with two senators elected in each. I have suggested in the past the creation of new states, which would also create new Senators from regional areas. Barnaby Joyce has suggested that states be split into six regions with two senators elected in each.

Dr Michelle Evans, from Murdoch University has suggested a constitutional change directing the interpretation of the constitution to occur in line with the federal intentions of the framers, that federal powers should be interpreted narrowly, and that the States should have a role in the appointment of High Court Justices. 

My main aim today, however, is to identify the problem not to specify precise solutions. Any serious actions will take years to pursue successfully, especially any change to Senate voting constituencies or the creation of new states. To make any progress along this path requires a greater spotlight to be aimed at the problem and that is my main aim tonight.

I think the recent election result also plainly indicates that we have an issue and we should seek to respond to rebuild the connections and respect across our country.

I will suggest one minor change to the work of the Senate that may help. Most parties in the Senate have “patron” arrangements where Senators from the same party are given “patron” lower house seats to look after. Because I am based in Rockhampton, my patron seats are Dawson, Capricornia and Flynn. These arrangements are all held within a party and therefore they become rather partisan. They are often become focused on “winning” seats rather than explicitly responding to local concerns.

Because I am based in Rockhampton, my patron seats are Dawson, Capricornia and Flynn.

The Senate could add a formal element to these patron arrangements where the elected Senators of each state are allocated across the state into agreed divisions. Under this model, Senators would still be elected by their entire state, and they would not need to move to another area, nor would they be restricted to only represent or work in a specific area of a state. Senators could voluntarily choose the region they would like to represent with preference being given to those whose office or reside is in the region. A process could also be established to ensure political diversity within a region. If there were too many Senators nominated for a region, and too few for another, representation could be decided by lot.

The Senate could establish a committee to which Senators would be expected to produce an annual report on how they have represented their patron area and what were the major concerns of the area. Although this is a minor change, a level of public accountability and measurability may help disperse the focus of the Senate to the regional areas of Australia.

In suggesting this change, I am not suggesting that the lack of subsidiarity in Australia is all due to the Senate, or that everything would be fixed if the Senate were reformed. There would be many other responses needed to ensure local communities or organisations achieve greater influence and power.

In suggesting this change, I am not suggesting that the lack of subsidiarity in Australia is all due to the Senate, or that everything would be fixed if the Senate were reformed.

The need for a regional voice

This week the push for an indigenous voice in our constitution has increased and I respect and understand the calls of Indigenous people for more influence and power over federal decision making.

Our constitution already enshrines a kind of implicit, regional voice through the equal representation provided to Original States in the Senate. However, that regional voice is failing to be heard over the din of loud Australians. There are ways we can seek to amplify the regional voice within our democracy and I think that is essential to help improve that to make better decisions that are more widely respected and help restore more confidence in our system of government.

Rediscovering the wisdom of subsidiarity is a way of achieving these outcomes. Unfortunately, as others have stated subsidiarity is often seen as ‘well known, most respected, carefully studied, and almost entirely ignored in practice’ (6).

Yet, we should try because as Australian academic Augusto Zimmerman has written, a good society flows up from its family, communities, councils to larger governments. This way the things that are important to people at the bottom are what guides decisions at the top. Or as Thomas Jefferson once eloquently put it:

A good society flows up from its family, communities, councils to larger governments.

Every state again is divided into counties, each to take care of what lies within its local bounds; each county again into townships or wards, to manage minuter details; and every ward into farms, to be governed each by its individual proprietor … It is by this partition of cares descending in graduation from general to particular that the mass of human affairs may be best managed for the good and prosperity of all.

Reconnecting with regional Australia would deliver a more vibrant, united and prosperous Australia. We cannot achieve a perfect union among all of our communities but we can learn to agree to disagree more. Doing so would live up to the true sentiments of Australia’s constitution and founding document.

The first few words of our constitution say “Whereas the people of New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, Queensland, and Tasmania …”. Compare that to the Canadian constitution which begins “Whereas the provinces …” or the US Constitution which begins with “We the people …” but makes no mention in its first sentence of the then US colonies.

Unique among these constitutions, Australia mentions both the smallest social unit of the individual and a constituent part of a nation, in the States. In this respect at least, our Constitution is perhaps the most consistent with the principles of subsidiarity of any. It is time for us to reconnect with that approach and reunite in one indissoluble Commonwealth.

Our Constitution is perhaps the most consistent with the principles of subsidiarity of any.

ENDNOTES

  1.  Catholic Church, Encyclical of Pope Pius XI Quadragesimo Anno, On Reconstruction of the Social Order (1931) http://tiny.cc/u96y9y  (79)

  2.  Commonwealth of Australia 2014: Reform of the federation white paper: A federation for our future, Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet

  3. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/secondary/SMIGRA*/Exercitus.html

  4. A. de Tocqueville, quoted at https://www.ciesin.columbia.edu/decentralization/English/General/history_fao.html

  5. Sir Henry Parkes, Official Record of the Debates of the Australasian Federal Convention, Sydney, 1891, 4 March 1891, 1:24.

  6. Leaper, R. A. B 2008. ‘Subsidiarity and the Welfare State.’ Social and Economic Administration, 9(2):445–458.

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