25/03/2009 - 22:00

Centralisation is not the answer

25/03/2009 - 22:00


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Of all people, Joel Fitzgibbon should understand the dangers of bigger government.

Centralisation is not the answer

ONE phrase State Scene shies well away from using is "I told you so", not least because I've never liked it being directed at me, especially if done assertively, as is generally the case.

Tell people clearly and simply where they may have made an error, without laying on the lard, or rubbing in the salt. That's far and away the best approach.

But, as with all such advice, occasional exceptions arise where an "I told you so" may be warranted.

Exceptional events give rise to exceptional responses.

Such an exception surfaced with Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon's three torrid days of parliamentary quizzing, where he conceded his department's paymasters couldn't correct serious ongoing glitches to pay packets of SAS troopers fighting in Afghanistan.

Since enough has been written about the SAS pay bungle there's no need to revisit it. Even so, this shouldn't be forgotten since it helps illustrate a point this column stressed about an earlier claim by Mr Fitzgibbon.

Readers may recall State Scene highlighting that he'd delivered the inaugural Edmund Barton Lecture at Newcastle University last July.

Mr Fitzgibbon was chosen because Barton - Australia's first prime minister - had been the member for Hunter, the seat now represented by the defence minister.

Although some of Mr Fitzgibbon's remarks about Barton were valid, one extreme contention, that Australia should be administered in a far more centralised manner, was not.

The degree of centralisation he aspires to meant all state parliaments and their administering departments would vanish and be replaced by enormous nationwide centrally controlled departments overseen by one parliament in Canberra.

Put otherwise, Australia would only have huge singular super-departments, like Defence, overseeing each area of responsibility.

His words were: "Further ideal reform would include abolition of the states."

Here's your typical old-style NSW Laborite returning to Labor's 1920s dream of Australia dominated by politicians from the two most populous states - New South Wales and Victoria.

Not coincidentally, the driving force behind incorporating a centralisation plank into Labor's platform immediately after the Great War was leftist Melbourne lawyer, Maurice Blackburn, "a long-time sympathizer with the Soviet Union as a 'great experiment in government'."

Blackburn was later active in the Australia-Soviet Friendship League.

Under Blackburn's blueprint, Australia was to be carved up into 36 so-called provinces - more appropriately described as dependencies - overseen by a 100-member single-chamber national legislature with "unlimited powers".

Where there were once independent states we'd have a network of servile provinces answering to an all-powerful bureaucratic class.

The Senate would be scrapped since states no longer existed - an ideal formula to ensure NSW and Victorian politicians always got their way.

To help grasp the full force of the Fitzgibbon revival of Blackburn's blueprint, open your telephone directory; wherever there's a state government department, like local government or police, and they'd become sub-branches of single departments with the same name but headquartered in Canberra.

State parliaments would probably house their capital city CBD councils - where lord mayors would preside. If not, these stately structures could become museums, convention centres, ballrooms or libraries.

At rock bottom the Fitzgibbon-revived 1920s Blackburn plan envisages transforming all state departments into mirror images of the huge department he's had such difficulty administering.

In light of his SAS pay bungle it's certainly tempting to say, "I told you so".

Voters at times complain about occasional cases of state maladministration.

But imagine 20, 25, or more giant administrative entities overseeing the nation entirely from Canberra.

Western Australians lobbied hard for self-government from London during the 1880s, and achieved it in 1890.

If the Fitzgibbon proposal was realised it would mean WA's return to something like its pre-1890s status - servile to a distant capital, Canberra, that is so dominated by Sydney and Melbourne politicians.

Another point that needs highlighting is the inappropriateness of his call for total centralisation during an Edmund Barton Lecture.

Barton was a key player in ensuring the new Australia that emerged on January 1 1901, after protracted debates at constitutional conventions and referendums, was a federation, something he supported ahead of a centralised country.

In other words, the citizens of the new Australia were not to be totally dominated by any particular state, or political party for that matter, but would be governed by governments of the six founding states plus a newly formed national government whose powers were limited and clearly spelled out in the democratically adopted federal constitution.

Also worth noting is that Mr Fitzgibbon is promoting an obsolete idea - centralism - that was fashionable in the 1920s, when dogmatic characters like Adolf Hitler and Vladimir Lenin grasped it for inclusion in their totalitarian programs.

But look where centralism got Hitler's Third Reich and Lenin's Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

The fate of both these 20th century entities correlates with the fact that power in both was rigidly centralised.

Centralism became influential due to the impact of Great War planning, regimentation and militarised thinking, where millions of soldiers' lives were totally controlled by powerful ministries and generals; hardly an ideal for peacetime living.

What may be appropriate in warfare isn't necessarily so in peacetime - something totalitarian dictators like Hitler and Lenin didn't appreciate.

Australians are free citizens, not soldiers to be ruled like combatants from a single command headquarters.

Why militarise civil society?

There are other reasons for saying, "I told you so", to Mr Fitzgibbon.

At the most recent federal election, which sounded the death-knell of the increasingly centralising government of John Howard, Labor rightly highlighted the existence of costly duplication between state and encroaching central bureaucracies.

The Business Council of Australia (BCA) released a costing that claimed creeping duplication between Canberra-based and state government departments was costing taxpayers $9 billion annually.

That figure received attention during the campaign.

A question now worth asking is what has the Rudd government done to slash duplication?

State Scene suspects, nothing, because Ruddism, like Obamism, means ever-bigger central government.

Incidentally, BCA's $9 billion figure is well below another State Scene saw in a 2002 or 2003 House of Representatives economics committee report.

The figure given there was $21 billion, referring to duplication across the board, between federal, state and local governments.

Today that probably stands at around $24 billion. In other words, well over $1,000 annually for every man, woman, and child.

Seen this way it's clear this is far from a marginal issue, suggesting it's time Canberra began pulling back from a huge number of responsibilities, most especially health, transport and education.

Continued 1920s-style centralist thinking isn't the answer, as, hopefully Mr Fitzgibbon's three embarrassing days in parliament helped show him.

Administering oversized departments is difficult, a task no single person should be required to undertake.

Edmund Barton and fellow founding fathers, who opted for federalist governance, were wise in doing so.

Unfortunately Canberra continues to encroach upon state responsibilities.

What's needed is a combined campaign by the states to push Canberra out of a whole range of responsibilities so it can do what it was created to do efficiently and leave all else to state governments.


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