Grassroots political power

In a free society, the power of government should come from the people. That power should flow up from individuals to their community and then up to higher levels of government.

In reality, power is being increasingly centralised in Canberra, and that power and responsibility then trickles down to the state governments and then the local councils. At the bottom, community groups are effectively powerless.

In the “community-up” approach, each person has a real link to political power and meaningful access to their representatives. In the “Canberra-down” approach, ordinary people are isolated from the political system and are reduced to one vote out of 14 million every three years to influence the heart of power. Not only does the “Canberra-down” approach make people disconnected to democracy and disillusioned about politics, but it also leads to less diversity, less political innovation, less incentive to be efficient and effective and less choice.

To improve democracy and switch to a “community-up” approach it is necessary to return some powers to the lower levels of government and community groups. In particular, I think there are two necessary reforms — a “devolution power” (to shift political power to a lower level of government) and a “break-away power” (to allow areas to break away and form new jurisdictions).

Break-away power

Break-away refers either to the breaking away from an old state to become a new state, or breaking away from an old council to become a new council. This could include North Queensland breaking away from Queensland to become Australia’s seventh state, or it could include Noosa breaking away from the Sunshine Coast council to once again become it’s own local council.

Introducing “break-away power” would allow those Qld councils who opposed the forced council mergers to once again split away and become their own council.

The “break-away power” also provides the opportunity to remove a layer of government so that an area only has two (instead of the current three) layers of government. This could be done by a local council applying to become a state — thus combining the roles of state and local government. This would create an administration similar to that currently in the ACT.

Breaking away would allow an area to pursue policies that specifically appeal to the local area, so that the government would better represent their local constituents. This would allow greater diversity (Nth Qld could have different daylight saving laws to Qld), allow policy innovation, give people more choice and put more pressure on governments to be effective or risk a break-away.

Indeed, merely the possibility of being able to break away (and not necessarily the act) would put pressure on the government to better represent their diverse electorate. This is because the state government will be more acutely aware that their ultimate authority rests on the consent of local regions and councils, and the local councils will be more acutely aware that their ultimate authority rests on the consent of local communities.

However, it is necessary to maintain a relative degree of stability in the political systems and so it should not be easy to break away. I suggest there should be three paths to breaking away:

1) If the representative body of the parent jurisdiction agrees, then the break-away area needs to achieve a majority of >50% in a referendum of people in the break-away area; or

2) If there is at least one sponsor in the representative body of the parent jurisdiction, then the break-away area needs to achieve a super-majority of > 66% in a referendum of people in the break-away area; or

3) A unanimous agreement of all property owners in the break-away area.

These rules would ensure that an area could only break away if there was either consent from the parent jurisdiction or an overwhelming demand from the break-away area.

It should also be noted that just because a jurisdiction breaks away, that doesn’t mean that they must pursue separate policies to their previous parent jurisdiction. For example, if New England broke away from NSW they may still choose to team up with the NSW authorities to provide a coordinated health service. Or New England may pay an agreed fee to the NSW government (or the Qld government) in exchange for police & courts.

Finally, jurisdictions would of course retain the right to merge with any other jurisdiction that agreed.

Devolution power

Break-away powers improve the incentives faced by governments and allow for greater choice, diversity, efficiency and innovation. But if we only had the “break away powers” there would still be several outstanding problems.

One issue is that there would still be no way to “break away” from the federal government, as that would split up Australia. Another issue is that it would be impossible to create a lower level of government (for example, if the people of the ACT wanted to create local governments under their territorial government).

A final issue is that the “break away” option is fairly radical and sometimes an area may want to simply gain control over one particular area but not fully break away from their parent jurisdiction.

The solution to these issues is to introduce a “devolution power” where a junior jurisdiction is able to force a parent jurisdiction to devolve power and/or responsibility on a certain issue. For example, the local councils effected by the Qld Wild Rivers legislation would have the option to force the devolution of the specific environmental legislation and then set the rules according to the desires of the local community.

The devolution powers has all of the same benefits as the break-away powers (diversity, choice, efficiency, innovation), but is useful for different circumstances. As with the break-away powers, the need for a degree of stability means that it should not be easy to force devolution. I suggest the same three paths as described above.


Of course, there are many reasons why an area may not want to break away or devolve power. There are some advantages of centralisation, such as economies of scale, potential coordination issues and a desire for uniformity. There is a balance to strike between the correct amount of centralisation and the correct amount of diversity & choice.

However, while the current approach forces an ever-increasing amount of centralisation, returning the ultimate authority to regions and communities allows each area to weigh up the benefits and costs of centralisation and the only pursue a centralist solution when it is optimal. Many areas will choose not to devolve power or break-away. But others may want greater autonomy. There is no a-priori correct level of political centralisation, and so we should let people build their own democratic system from the community up.

[Cross-posted at my personal blog —]

6 thoughts on “Grassroots political power

  1. John,

    I admit to not reading this earlier because it is slightly long.

    I think that the constitution should be recognised from the smallest level and allow for such break away power.

    Another important point is to allow for a variety of sub national units – States, regions, city States and unincorporated areas. This will allow the break away power to function better as any disadvantage from being forced to choose the wrong scale of Government can be avoided.

  2. Something else I raised a few times over the years- the constitutional definition of the states. A lawyer once wrote a book on whether any State could legally secede, and he came to the conclusion that they could not, BUT he never looked into the legal definition of the state. For instance, if Western Australia redefined itself so that the northernmost area (The Kimberleys), were not part of the State of Western Australia, I think that would be a way of creating a new state, or even a new nation.
    And I agree completely that small communities are the way to go!

  3. A related idea- perhaps you could get Prince Leonard, of Hutt River Principality, to write you a piece about how he’s seceded for FORTY years now! The principality is planning special celebrations this year, to mark the event. Nor would it be paradoxical for an Anarcho-Capitalist to be supported by a self-styled monarch. Everyone should be their own absolute monarch, after all!!!

  4. Sadly we are seeing the exact opposite. We are having councils amalgamated. State acts over-riding council acts, national acts over-riding state acts.

    I find it appauling that almost everything is legislated upwards. Dog registration in QLD is now at a state level and they are already talking about a ‘national’ act so that dog registration can be ‘standardised’ throughout Australia.

    Sadly 99% of people love ‘standardisation’. We have be slowly and slowly moving toward becoming a single state.

  5. The comments at Johns cross post are worth a read. Especially the one by Duncan.

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