29/04/2010 - 00:00

Fighting off a shift to the centre

29/04/2010 - 00:00


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Kevin Rudd’s hospital plan has all the hallmarks of 1920s Labor policy.

SINCE the early 1920s, two national institutions – the Australian Labor Party and the High Court – have driven the crusade for a more centralised Australia.

The former has done this via an immediate post-World War I party plank, the latter by consistently handing down rulings that extended central power.

Those advocating boosting Canberra’s muscles welcomed this, since it meant increasing numbers of politicians, left-of-centre academics, social studies schoolteachers, and lawyers formed a little-noticed ideological alliance that set about steadily dismantling the states, which had voluntarily created a constitutionally prescribed federal government.

Their child was, therefore, coaxed towards devouring its parents.

While the push to greater centralisation has traditionally been dominated by the political left, centralist proselytisers have recently surfaced within the Liberal Party, especially the Howard government’s cabinets.

Once knowing the origin of this nearly century-old centralist crusade, it’s not surprising that the number of Australians favouring dismantling, in one way or another, state governance, has been rising.

Often what follows is the contention that the states should be displaced by smaller, regional entities.

Regionalising state administrations is something that’s welcomed, since it would bring government closer to people

Unfortunately, our centralist crusaders want more; they seek regionalised governance via Canberra-created and Canberra-controlled regions.

The primary reason is that Australia’s left initiated the regionalist notion and concurrently advocated that such regions fall under central control, despite the constitution providing for the creation of new independent states, not centrally dependent regions.

But our crusaders want just one jumbo government (Canberra) directing many small regional administrative units, not a federal approach of six state governments each directing a smaller number of regional administrative units.

One of the tragedies of Australia’s federation movement of the 1890s was the fact that Laborites had minimal involvement in this process, because it was during this time that the union movement coalesced into what became the ALP, in January 1900.

In other words, Labor institutionally missed formal and sentimental association with the creation of a federal Commonwealth, something that gave rise to a less-than-accepting predisposition towards the new Australia and even the notion of federalism.

Not surprisingly Labor, by 1920, formally adopted complete centralisation of Australia as one of its key planks. Another was the socialisation of production, distribution and exchange. Its vision was for Australia to be transformed by the creation of 36 provinces, all controlled by a central government.

That, of course, meant abolishing Australia’s six foundation states, dismantling their parliaments, scrapping state governorships and the Senate, since without states, senators are redundant.

Unlimited power would reside in a single 100-politician chamber and 31 centrally created provincial governments whose boundaries and powers could be altered at Canberra’s whim.

However, Labor was never able to bring its 1920s centralist/regionalising blueprint into being since it didn’t gain power in that decade, was split in the 1930s, pre-occupied with the Pacific War over the first half of the 1940s, and lost power in 1949.

What this thumbnail account hides is the fact that, from 1945 to 1949, the Chifley Labor government attempted to centrally regionalise Australia.

But those few years were too brief to bring about the scrapping of the states by dismantling their parliaments, abolishing their governors, and doing away with the Senate and senators.

And as you’d expect, when the Whitlam Labor government emerged 23 years later, in 1972, it created a huge Department of Urban and Regional Development, thereby returning to Labor’s 1920s centralist provincial blueprint that the Chifley Government had instituted during 1945-49.

But Whitlam-led Labor was also too short-lived, being dismissed by the governor-general, Sir John Kerr.

Neither the Hawke nor Keating Labor governments of 1983-96 were overly inclined to restructure Australia’s governance along Labor’s 1920s lines.

Both were focused upon reforming economic, rather than administrative, institutions.

Paradoxically it was the Howard governments of 1996-2007 that moved to foster greater involvement by Canberra in state affairs via a regionalist approach.

Mr Howard, a Sydney lawyer like Mr Whitlam, was also ardently centralist, wishing to see state governments gradually run-down, thereby paving the way for their ultimate displacement by increasingly well-financed Canberra-controlled regional administrations.

But he shrewdly avoided highlighting this prediliction.

Whenever quizzed on his less-than-lukewarm support for a federal Australia, Mr Howard’s practiced reply started with a denial that he was a centralist, after which he’d claim to be a nationalist – a vague jumbo term that meant he favoured a national, meaning centralist, rather than state perspective on governance.

Using the word nationalist nicely camouflaged his centralist urge, his desire to boost Canberra’s powers, which he envisaged increasingly implementing via centrally created and controlled regions.

What does all this mean?

A lot, since it reveals that virtually from Australia’s birth, from the 1920s, when Labor and the High Court jointly, even if informally, embarked upon their centralist paths, that mission came to incorporate regions far removed from state government oversight.

In Australia’s political context, centralism and regionalism were wrapped-up into a single anti-federalist package.

But it’s crucial to know that this needn’t be so. One can reject ever-greater Canberra centralism and concurrently advocate decentralism via regionalising governance.

Interestingly, Western Australia has already begun moving down this path, with few appreciating that this largely pioneering effort has been launched.

WA’s 2008 state election, that featured the emergence of the Brendon Grylls-led National Party’s Royalties for Regions scheme, if nothing else, could become the launching pad for greater state-based (not Canberra-controlled) regional governance that’s closer to the people.

There’s no reason why state government departments shouldn’t become increasingly based in regional centres – Manjimup (forestry); Northam (agriculture – grain/stock); Geraldton (fisheries); Margaret River (vineyards and beef/dairying); Karratha/Kalgoorlie (energy/mining); and Broome/Geraldton (Aboriginal affairs), with Perth retaining state parliament and being the administrative hub for various urban-based responsibilities.

What’s crucial, however, is that Canberra’s huge, growing and increasingly wasteful bureaucratic empires shouldn’t be allowed to divide and conquer the state by commandeering WA’s emergent regional administrative entities.

On the contrary, so many of Canberra’s costly duplicating departments – most especially, transport, education, health and environment – should have their activities within WA steadily dismantled and transferred to regionalised state-based and controlled administrations.

Don’t be fooled by Kevin Rudd’s so-called health reforms that refer to ‘local hospital networks’ – Canberra-controlled ones – since they are simply Labor’s old provinces or regions under another name.

Over to you, Mr Grylls, since your party launched us upon a worthwhile state-based regionalising path that breaks WA being so Perth-centred.

Let’s hope you don’t allow WA’s regions to be gobbled-up by avaricious Canberra politicians and bureaucrats.

Sugarcoating 1920s-vintage centralism with Canberra-controlled regionalism isn’t the way to truly devolve government and bring it closer to Western Australians.



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