10 Principles to Renew Federal Democracy


Professor Cheryl Sauders and Jonathan Green in conversation at the John Button Oration, 2015


Laureate Professor Emeritus Cheryl Saunders (AO) is Australia’s leading constitutional law expert and argues that Australia’s basic democratic principles and practices provide the best guide to federalism reform.

Jonathan Green, the host of Sunday Extra on ABC Radio National, is the former editor of The Drum and his latest book is 'The Year My Politics Broke'. Jonathan Green has worked in public radio, at Crikey, The Canberra Times, Melbourne Herald, Herald Sun, Sunday Herald and The Age.

Professor Saunders and Mr Green were in conversation for the John Button Oration 2015, hosted by the John Button Foundation and the Melbourne School of Government (Melbourne Town Hall, Tuesday July 14, 2015).

Listen to Professor Saunders' interview with Patricia Karvelas on federalism and democracy on ABC Radio National, Tuesday July 14, 2015.

10 Principles of Federalism

Federalism and democracy are inextricably intertwined in Australia. Weakness in one has inevitable consequences for the other. At present, a severe federal fiscal imbalance and overuse of opaque intergovernmental decision-making processes have caused excessive centralisation of government at a cost to innovation and efficiency, over-concentration of power in the executive branch, duplication of bureaucracy and erosion of the democratic accountability of governments to the people through Parliaments.

Professor Saunders and former University of Melbourne Law School Dean Michael Crommelin AO have devised the following ten principles to guide federal democratic reform:

1. The purpose of federalism reform should be to invigorate and enrich Australian democracy

2. In Australia, democracy is organised through different levels of government, each of which derives limited authority to govern from the Australian people, or a segment of them, to whom it is accountable.

3. Democratic accountability relies on the elected Parliaments of the Commonwealth and the States and territories, in which public deliberation on significant decisions can take place and through which transparency can be secured.

4. The Australian Constitution confers limited authority on both the Commonwealth and State levels of government having regard to which level of government is more appropriate to do what.

5. Dealings between levels of government must be conducted with the mutual respect, trust and good faith that are due to democratically elected representatives of the Australian people.

6. Intergovernmental collaboration is an integral part of Australian federal democracy when properly used; it should be undertaken only for purposes that are clear and publicly justifiable by reference to a specific need, using mechanisms that are consistent with democratic principle and practice.

7. The Australian Constitution provides authority to the Commonwealth level of government to raise the public revenues that are required not only to meet its own constitutional responsibilities but also to assist the States to meet theirs.

8. Each State is accountable to the people of the State for the expenditure of public monies derived from public revenues raised by the Commonwealth but surplus to its own constitutional responsibilities.

9. Australian federal democracy recognises a principle of solidarity that requires horizontal sharing of public revenues to redress substantial economic disparities among States and Territories.

10. The values of the composite concept of Australian federal democracy apply also in relation to other levels of Australian government, including indigenous self-government, local and city government and territory government.

Read the full discussion paper "Reforming Australian Federal Democracy", by Professor Saunders and Professor Crommelin


Published Date
July 15, 2015