Sir Samuel Griffith Symposium: Experimentation, Innovation, and Policy Learning in the Australian Federation

Panel Code

In December 1970 the Victorian state government made the wearing of seatbelts compulsory. This was a radical move for the time, a prime example of state based ‘experimentation' that proved effective in reducing the road toll. Within two years the other states had followed suit passing similar legislation themselves. In short, they had learnt from the experiment. Is this policy development mere happenstance or is it evidence of ‘laboratory federalism’ in action in Australia? This is an important question because it goes to the heart of a key aspect of Australia’s federal structure. At its core this debate is about whether the benefits of a divided sovereignty outweigh the costs, an issue of relevance to all federations, not just Australia. A longstanding issue, central to the often polemical debate between federalism’s proponents and its detractors, is whether federalism facilitates policy experimentation and learning. While detractors argue that the States in Australia have generally failed to take advantage of opportunities to learn from the policy experiments of others, its supporters point to federalism’s capacity to promote, sustain and learn from innovation through ‘laboratory federalism’ (Oates 1999). Who is right? Regardless of where one sits on these matters, the evidence to support either side is scant. While the idea that federalism promotes such activities is routinely noted, it is rarely supported empirically (Fenna 2007: 185–6). In the absence of systematic study, the debate relies on sporadic and anecdotal examples of experimentation and learning. This panel addresses this gap in our understanding of federalism by presenting work on experimentation, innovation and policy learning in Australia.