NATIONAL AFFAIRS: by Joseph PoprzecznyNews Weekly
Liberals turning to Whitlam-style centralism
, July 22, 2006
The Howard Government is seemingly repudiating the Liberal Party's traditional defence of states' rights, writes Joseph Poprzeczny.Federal Treasurer Peter Costello apparently plans to transform Australia's six sovereign states into mere spending departments for Canberra. But a more likely outcome of his centralist blueprint is that it will be the precursor of the break-up of Australia as we know it.
Yet commentaries on the Costello centralisation plan (being marketed as "new federalism") have failed to acknowledge the real risk of such an outcome.
The reason is that all commentators have ignored the Australian Labor Party's post-World War I platforms that sought to dismantle Australia's federal compact, then just 20-years-old.
Labor moved, at its 1921 national conference, to break-up the federation. It was also at that conference that it adopted its electorally-debilitating socialisation objective.Labor conference
Labor's 1921 national conferences adopted the following:
• "Unlimited legislative powers for the Commonwealth Parliament and such delegated powers to the States or Provinces as the Commonwealth parliament may determine from time to time."
• "The Commonwealth Parliament to be vested with the authority to create new States or Provinces.
• "The Senate to be abolished."
A key driving force behind both planks was Melbourne left-wing lawyer, Maurice Blackburn, who helped transform the ALP, by seeking to restructure Australia, something former Melbourne lawyer, Costello, now proposes.
Labor later expelled Blackburn over his membership of the left-wing Movement Against War and Fascism.
Although readmitted, he was again expelled because of links to the Australia-Soviet Friendship League.
The Labor Party, until Blackburn's post-World War I transformation of it, had been essentially a workers' party.
After the 1921 reformulation, it became a centralist/socialist agency, even though the term "unificationist", rather than centralist, was then in vogue.
Australia's urban and rural-based non-Labor parties - predecessors of today's Liberals and Nationals - distinguished themselves from post-1921 Labor by opposing socialism and unificationism, or centralism.
They thus strongly upheld the principle of federalism, seeking to ensure the dispersal of power and identifying with Australia's historic states.
Prime Minister John Howard and Liberal Party deputy leader Costello's latest and ongoing moves towards greater centralism fundamentally reverse this longstanding commitment, even though they fall just short of embracing Blackburn's plan.
Australia's various non-Labor parties, between 1921 and the emergence of the Howard-Costello Liberals, used to champion states' rights.
Now they seek to further extend Canberra's control over a new range of state responsibilities - from education to infrastructure provision.
The post-1921 Blackburn blueprint sought to fragment Australia's historic six states into 31 provinces, each of them to be directly controlled by the central government (which began to be relocated to Canberra from 1927).
Labor also intended to scrap, not only the states, but the states' house - the Senate.
In its place would be a single elected 100-member chamber with "unlimited powers". Each province would mirror this with a unicameral (i.e., single-chamber) legislature, like Queensland, the Northern Territory and the ACT today.
Provinces would be created by amalgamating local councils, so would be far smaller than the current states but far larger than shires. All would be directly and totally controlled by Canberra.
Blackburn's unitary state notion may have, in part, been influenced by the fact that South Africa - or more correctly, the Union of South Africa - and New Zealand had opted for unificationism rather than federalist governing arrangements.
Let's, however, not forget that unitary state thinking was popular some 80 years ago with other socialist movements.
Adolf Hitler, for instance, who emerged in 1923 to head Germany's National Socialist Workers' Party (NSDAP), wished to see Germany's Weimar Republic federal arrangements dismantled.
Hitler did precisely that after his appointment as German chancellor in 1933. He created his Eine Reich -
with Berlin at its centre - and abolished historic German states, such as Bavaria and Saxony, replacing them with centrally-controlled regions called Gaue
Chapter 10 of his political tract Mein Kampf
("My Struggle") is titled, "Federalism as a Mask", a bitter attack upon dispersed political power.
Further east, in the newly-created Soviet Union, another socialist - the Bolshevik Vladimir Lenin - implemented domestically and promoted internationally his doctrine of democratic centralism, with Moscow at its centre.
Blackburn's antipodean centralist crusade thus falls clearly into the early 20th-century socialist-centralist administrative totalitarian tradition.
Since Australia's historic states would be scrapped under his plan, state constitutional links to Westminster would also be severed, meaning states would no longer have governors with their important reserve powers.
Since Blackburn's 31 provinces, unlike our historic six states, would be totally subjugated to Canberra - Eine
or One Australia - state public services would be incorporated into a single national civil service.
There would thus be one national police force, one health system, one taxation department, one education department, one transport department, and so on.
Each department would have its employees dispersed throughout each Canberra-controlled province.
A question worth asking is why this has so far never eventuated.
The answer is that the ALP never had adequate time in power to implement it, even though there were two attempts to do so - by the Chifley and Whitlam Governments.
James Scullin's Labor government of 1929-32 was, understandably, preoccupied with the severity of the Great Depression.
Labor returned to power again in 1941 under John Curtin, but had to cope with the Japanese threat until 1945.
Even so, the Curtin-led Labor Government moved to further centralise Australia and those moves were continued by the Chifley Government with its so-called Post-War Reconstruction program.Centrally-controlled regions
Under that banner, it administratively sub-divided Australia into more than 100 centrally-controlled regions. The term "province" was no longer fashionable.
This centralist program was quickly dismantled by the Menzies-Fadden Coalition Government which came to power in late 1949.
Until 1972, all coalition governments sought to maintain federal arrangements, despite retaining the uniform taxation which had been introduced as an emergency measure during World War II.
Labor's provincialist proclivity re-surfaced under the 1972-75 Whitlam Government, with the creation of the Department of Urban and Regional Development.
This agency re-instituted Chifley's post-war reconstruction regions, markedly boosted tied (special purpose) Canberra grants, and sought to merge shires under the Australian Assistance Plan, which was designed to by-pass state government bureaucracies.
Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser promoted his vision of New Federalism to rescue the states from Canberra-initiated regionalism and reinvigorate them.
However, Howard and Costello have emerged as centralists and have managed to quietly overturn their party's traditional commitment to federalism.
Howard sometimes even speaks favourably of Whitlam-style regionalism.
During a 2004 Sydney radio interview, he said: "I have no doubt that if we were starting this country all over again, we wouldn't have quite the same structure of government that we now have.
"We'd have a national government, obviously, and we'd probably have a larger number of regional governments and not have the existing state boundaries. ...
"I don't think the system we have in Australia works very efficiently." (Quoted by Mike Steketee, "The centralist contradiction, The Australian,
February 10, 2005).
These words, when set against the record of the Whitlam Government - which revived Chifley's post-war reconstruction, which was in turn based on Blackburn's 1921 centralist provincial blueprint - are revealing and may well be a sign of things to come. These remarks are not isolated ones.
True, Mr Howard never speaks of scrapping states, their parliaments or the Senate (although he has toyed with the idea of curbing the Senate's power).
Yet neither has he dismissed Whitlam and Chifley's objective to steadily transform Australia from its historic federalist structure towards weaker regional units.
Moreover, during his 2004 Menzies Research Centre lecture, Mr Howard made the following largely-ignored but telling remarks.
"Liberalism is a philosophy with a timeless quality in a world of constant change," he said.
"I believe that part of that change is a greater focus by the Australian people on ties to nation and to local community, and less to state loyalties
." (Emphasis added).
Despite this strongly anti-state assertion, Howard dislikes being called a centralist, preferring to describe himself as a nationalist.
"My own attitude towards our federal system has evolved over a life in politics," he continued.
"Like other Liberals, I am a strong constitutionalist. The dispersal of power that a federal system promotes, together with its potential to deliver services closer to people's needs, are threads of our political inheritance that I have always valued and respected.
"The trouble is that, in practice, there is often less to these arguments than meets the eye."
The rest of his address then proceeded to criticise Australia's present federalist system of governance.
When such views are put against his sympathetic view of regionalism - or what he called "a greater focus by the Australian people on ties to nation and to local community, and less to state loyalties
" - is that a hint of things to come?
Moves are presently afoot to fully take over the university sector. His government, since the 2004 election, has created 24 so-called Australian Technical Colleges when state TAFE colleges were adequately meeting such educational needs.Downgrading the states
Costly duplication - currently running at more than $20 billion annually, as disclosed by the 2003 David Hawker parliamentary inquiry - and the continual downgrading of state-based governance are proceeding apace under the Howard Government.
Although Canberra's direct grants to so-called "local community" and environmental groups are yet to be fully tabulated, they are estimated to run into hundreds of millions of dollars annually.
If Costello succeeds Howard as Prime Minister and continues along this already well-worn duplicating and displacing path, state government will have few responsibilities left to oversee.
The question will inevitably be asked: if states are made redundant and superfluous, why not indeed opt for Canberra-devised regions?
Is it being fanciful to expect a future federal Labor Government to take up from here and press on towards the completion of the Chifley-Whitlam regionalist model?
If so, the Howard-Costello duo would have well and truly paved the way for the 1921 Blackburn Labor vision to be realised.
- Joseph Poprzeczny is a Perth-based freelance journalist and historical researcher. This article is a longer version of the one that appeared in the printed edition of News Weekly.