CANBERRA OBSERVED: News Weekly
Howard to use Canberra power against states
, April 23, 2005
Is Prime Minister Howard preparing to repudiate federalism - one of the central tenets of Australian conservatism?
John Howard appears to have been slightly stung by recent criticism that he has all but abandoned one of the chief tenets of the Liberal Party - that of protecting the rights of the states.
But at the same time the Prime Minister is showing no sign whatsoever of backing away from what now appears to be the theme of his fourth term - a recasting of federalism and a championing of centralism at the expense of the states.
In a major speech to the Menzies Research Centre, Mr Howard outlined some of the recent discussion and claimed that there had been a major misunderstanding of the Government's reform direction.
He declared that his Government had no desire to abolish the states or to grab any of their powers.
"Where we seek a change in the federal-state balance, our goal is to expand individual choice, freedom and opportunity, not to expand the reach of the central government,'' he said. "The goal is to free the individual, not to trample on the states.''Federal role
However, Mr Howard then went on to discuss the necessity of the Federal Government moving into the previous state domains of industrial relations, education and health.
Unlike Sir Robert Menzies, Mr Howard has never been a particularly strong supporter of states' rights, but it is becoming increasingly clear his centralism is stronger than anyone imagined.
Senior ministers including Brendan Nelson and Tony Abbott have picked up on the thinking of their boss and have begun laying the groundwork for major advances by the national government.
However, Mr Howard is now insisting that any changes to the federal system will be incremental rather than revolutionary.
In his speech, Mr Howard said that the nationalisation of the economy had meant many of the old ways of running government had changed. For example, while Menzies was a defender of the old industrial relations system of conciliation and arbitration, the course of history had superceded these old concepts.
Mr Howard also said that the states themselves regularly trampled on local governments and over-ruled schools trying to insist on strict anti-drugs policies.
And he claimed that the GST had given the states far greater autonomy than ever before. "No government in 60 years has given the states more fiscal autonomy to fulfil their constitutional responsibilities,'' Mr Howard claimed.
Nevertheless, because the Federal Government still collects the GST, the states are still in a position where they have to go cap-in-hand to Canberra, and even now are being threatened with retribution by Treasurer Peter Costello if they don't agree to abolish some indirect taxes.
Mr Howard's other new centralist babies are the new federal technical colleges, which will be built in competition with state-run institutions - certainly the biggest foray by the Federal Government into the education system in decades.
The Prime Minister claims his Government is simply stepping in where eight different state systems are failing to deliver what the Government needs.
"The end result will be less, not more, bureaucracy and greater choice and opportunity for Australia's young people,'' he said.
Mr Howard's defence of his new centralism can be summed up in his claim that Australians are a "non-ideological, pragmatic and empirical people''.
"They want governments to deliver outcomes, not make excuses,'' he said. "They want governments that take responsibility, not states of denial.''
In other words, Australians want what works.
The one thing that stands in the way of Mr Howard's utilitarianism is history and the fact his Government, with its conservative instincts, will not always be in power.
It is all very well pointing out that state governments may be inefficient, over-bureaucratic and running out of ideas. But, by slowly whittling away power from the states simply to deliver outcomes, he sets incrementally dangerous precedents.
A future government (and not necessarily a Labor one) could use over-weaning federal powers to change the lives of Australians in all sorts of disastrous ways and there would be no way of stopping them.
The dispersal of power is vital to personal freedom and democracy in Australia and the states play a vital role in restricting that total centralisation of power in one place and with one or a few people.
Mr Howard should always remember that Canberra was and should always be a concession and a compromise, not an end goal in itself.