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The Balancing Act

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In a federal system of government, Commonwealth and State Governments have powers. This is the balance of power.

This area is one of the most misunderstood aspects of government.  At the time of Federation the Commonwealth was granted some important exclusive powers, e.g. Customs and excise duties, and coining money.  The States surrendered all responsibility for these areas.  But most of the powers were in fact concurrent – that is, they were given to the Commonwealth under Section 51 but not taken entirely from the States; power and jurisdiction were not divided but shared.

Since 1900, the Commonwealth has exercised its powers with increasing vigour, resulting in its encroachment on areas that were not originally expected to be its concern.

It should be noted that, under Section 109 of the Commonwealth Constitution, when a State law is inconsistent with a Commonwealth law, the Commonwealth law will override the State law.

Dealing with problems of joint jurisdiction is an ever-present fact of life for Australian governments and over time the balance changes.

Under Section 51 of the Commonwealth Constitution, responsibilities given to the Commonwealth at Federation related to such matters as:

  • Defence and external affairs;

  • Navigation, quarantine and meteorological services;

  • Immigration, citizenship, matrimonial status;

  • International and interstate trade and commerce;

  • Currency, non-State banking and insurance;

  • Conciliation and arbitration for interstate industrial disputes;

  • Postal and telecommunications services, conditional powers with respect to railways; and

  • Invalid and old age pensions.

The Commonwealth Constitution does not list any powers of the States, but at Federation the States were considered to have sole responsibility for everything not specified in the Commonwealth Constitution. This included:

  • Law and order within Australia;

  • The regulation of commerce and industry;

  • Transport services; natural resources, including land;

  • Essential services such as water supply, sewerage, drainage, electricity and gas;

  • Local government;

  • Education, housing and health;

  • The environment;

  • Industrial relations.

At Federation, the Commonwealth and States shared a number of tax powers, but with the Commonwealth having exclusive power over customs and excise duties.