16/05/2006 - 22:00

Centralised road to nowhere

16/05/2006 - 22:00


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Because Sydneysider John Howard has won four elections – and his side seems set to win another – there’s a tendency to attribute to him much that he simply doesn’t, and never will, deserve.

Because Sydneysider John Howard has won four elections – and his side seems set to win another – there’s a tendency to attribute to him much that he simply doesn’t, and never will, deserve.

Howard governments have been big taxing one-track contraptions.

And that track has been to ensure more power flows towards Canberra’s bureaucracies.

It’s become so bad that state governments are now well down the road to becoming mere dependencies, appendages, of that distant city’s vast and costly bureaucracies, no longer stand-alone sovereign entities.

As State Scene readers will remember, reference to this was well encapsulated when a Perth reporter recently asked Mr Howard why he’s so ardent a centraliser.

“I’m not a centralist, I’m a nationa-list,” was his unconvincing response.

Wow. Who isn’t?

It’s hard to find an Aussie, who – to a greater or lesser extent – isn’t nationalistic.

Look at how avidly we cheer for other Australians in sporting and similar competitive endeavours.

Observe how people’s faces light-up when Peter Allen’s well-known line ‘I still call Aus-tray-lee-ah home’ is sung at gala events or in radio or television advertisements.

Look, wherever you care, and you’ll find sincere, genuine, and deep-seated national as well as state pride aplenty on the faces of children, the middle aged, and the elderly.

That, however, hardly justifies concentrating ever more power into a few square kilometres of pre-1927 grazing countryside north of the Australian Alps, where increasingly expensive conglomerations of concrete and glass departmental structures have arisen around the now-dammed Molonglo rivulet.

But one-track John Howard can’t, or, more correctly, won’t, see it so.

Instead, he insists on interpreting feelings of widespread national pride as justifying his protracted drive to bestow ever more power upon Canberra’s bureaucrats who sit so close to him.

In light of this it’s encouraging that others who are more politically adept and far more astute than State Scene share this assessment of his mad rush to further empower Canberra’s bureaucracies.

For instance, former NSW premier, Bob Carr, recently said the states were being reduced to “implementation agencies”.

Put otherwise, Canberra is to be the puppeteer, the states the puppets.

Academic Max Corden, a professorial fellow at Melbourne University’s department of economics and emeritus professor of International Economics of the School of Advanced International Studies of Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, has also criticised Canberra’s ongoing encroachments.

In a recent address assessing Australia’s tertiary education sector, which, interestingly, another insightful academic so aptly described as “Australia’s last socialised industry”, he said: “[W]hile in the United States and when visiting Australia, I heard what had been happening to Australian universities, essentially from 1989.

“The Soviet system crashed in 1985, thanks principally to Mr Gorbachev. I shall call it the ‘Moscow System’.

“It became clear – at least to those to whom it had not been clear before – that the Soviet central planning system had been a failure.

“There was apparently no-one left to defend it.

“Thus, it was a surprise to me that, just after that time, a mini-version of this system, with all the mentality that goes with it – but applying it only to higher education – was apparently being constructed in Canberra.

“I shall call this little town ‘Moscow on the Molonglo’.”

Professor Corden is a fellow both of the Australian Academy of Sciences and the British Academy, and in 2001 became a Companion of Australia.

He’s also author of Trade Police and Economic Welfare, regarded as a classic, and has contributed to the study of developing economies and Australian public policy.

That said, it would be unfair to leave readers believing he’s criticised all that’s happened in “Australia’s last socialised industry”.

Far from it. He certainly doesn’t criticise introduction of university fees. And it’s far from accurate to portray him as a secessionist troglodyte.

However, growing centralisation and ever-greater Canberra control of education was something he expressed concern about.

Now, if higher education was the only area that the mad centralising rush Mr Howard justifies by claiming to be a nationalist, perhaps it could be tolerated.

But that’s not what has occurred under four Howard governments.

Consider also the following two cases of duplication about which nothing has been done since 1996, when Mr Howard became prime minister.

Most readers probably realise that Chevron-Texaco is investing tens of millions on the North-West Shelf to extract below-seabed natural gas for export.

One would have assumed such a huge offshore project would have required only one environmental impact inquiry.

And it’s fair to expect such a costly exercise to be undertaken under the terms and conditions of WA’s environmental legislation.

But nothing so sensible is happening.

Chevron-Texaco has had to produce not one but two environmental reports – one for Canberra’s bureaucrats, another for Perth’s.

There are countless such instances of double authorising, which, as well as being costly and delaying go-aheads, keep unnecessary Canberra bureau-cracies in existence.

Here’s another example.

State Scene lives near Reid Highway, a major northern arterial road that services Perth’s northern beach suburban motorists wishing to promptly reach south-eastern suburbs, including Perth’s two airports.

Two major north-south thorough-fares – Alexander Drive and Mirrabooka Avenue – carrying tens of thousands of cars daily intersect Reid Highway with traffic lights.

For a decade now, huge mounds of earth have sat alongside both dangerous intersections awaiting construction of bridges that, if built, would save millions of costly litres of fuel annually and reduce pollution over surrounding suburbs.

At state and federal elections candidates have invariably promised, in very carefully worded propaganda pamphlets, to have the first intersection finally overpassed.

Little wonder, Mirrabooka Avenue and Reid Highway is Perth’s deadliest intersection, with Alexander Drive’s nearly as ominous.

During the February 2005 election campaign Yokine MP, Bob Kucera, distributed a flyer headlined ‘Traffic black spot solution – Bob Kucera delivers overpass construction commitment’.

Paragraphs one and two read: “The Gallop Labor government has thrown its support behind the construction of an overpass at the intersection of Reid Highway and Mirrabooka Avenue – one of the state’s worst traffic block spots.

“Nearby residents and motorists have complained for years about the safety of this intersection with just cause.”

Wow! Below his picture showing him standing at that deadly intersection the caption read: “Bob Kucera secured $2 million to get the overpass off the ground.”

Now – and here’s the kicker – the flyer’s very last paragraph reads: “In the spirit of bipartisanship, an elected Gallop government would look to the Federal government for a 50 per cent matching contribution to complete this very important community project.”

That carefully worded concluding paragraph – especially the phrase, “the spirit of bipartisanship” – was, of course, Mr Kucera’s crucial escape clause if the mounds remain untouched, as, not surprisingly, they have.

State Scene cannot help wondering how many electors ever reached his last carefully crafted paragraph.

When fronted in March 2006 by a local newspaper on why still no overpass was under construction, Mr Kucera answered: “Without a commit-ment from the federal government for half the cost, it would be pretty difficult for the state government to do it.

“If they come to the party tomorrow, there is a very strong case to get on with it.”

So back and forth the invisible bucks keep passing.

It’s not surprising then that state MPs rarely complain of Canberra’s encroachments, since the murky ‘no-one knows who is responsible for what and when’ is ideal ground for Canberra bashing and vice verse, and leaving voters permanently baffled and in the dark.

The sooner Howard-style nationalists vacate entire areas of responsibility – education, transport, roads, technical training, environment, to name five – the sooner we may get straight forward uncomplicated, honest and candid governance without buck passing of never-seen dollars.


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