Former PM John Howard seems to have rediscovered his federalist feet.
Former PM John Howard seems to have rediscovered his federalist feet.
FOR all who had assumed John Howard would depart the public stage after losing the prime ministership and his seat of Bennelong, think again.
Since vacating The Lodge in December 2007 he’s re-emerged as a public figure and commentator.
I turn on the radio; who’s that being interviewed? Mr Howard.
I meet a contact at the State Library and the first thing I learn is that Mr Howard recently addressed a parents’ night at his old school.
I then receive an emailed newsletter from the Sydney-based Liberal Arts College. Guess who’d just delivered a keynote address there? You got it.
I visit a shopping centre, meet another contact, and learn that Mr Howard was at a bookshop there signing copies of his political autobiography.
If it’s not that flawed book it’s a speech or interview.
He’s undoubtedly been doing the same elsewhere across Australia, meaning he’s on the way to becoming Australia’s own Scarlet Pimpernel; you see him here, you see him there, he seems to be damn-well everywhere.
Clearly 72-year-old Mr Howard believes he’s far too young to retire.
However, it’s difficult to swallow his shifts from one side to another on key issues without a hint of blushing.
Mr Howard undoubtedly is the most elusive political creature Australia has had.
Consider the following cases.
Sometime after I’d started writing columns for this newspaper in 2000 I noticed Mr Howard was departing from traditional Liberal Party federalist policies by increasingly promoting centralism – Canberra controlling all – an approach Labor adopted after WWI.
I’d briefly assumed Howard centralism was just a temporary aberration, perhaps only on a few selected issues.
But no, it persisted in a growing number of areas: from wage determination to paving the way for exorbitantly costly wind farms; from botched solar panel feed-in tariff schemes to compulsory reporting of emissions by companies; and finally, entering the 2007 election campaign, promising, like the Greens, an Australia-wide CO2 tax.
These ‘Greens credentials’ didn’t stop him launching professor Ian Plimer’s brilliant anti-greens manifesto, How to Get Expelled from School: A guide to climate change for pupils, parents and punters, last year.
Nor did it stop him agreeing to write the foreword to Canadian professor Ross McKintrick’s devastating analysis of the United Nations IPCC reports.
His opening lines in that foreword are: “I am an agnostic when it comes to global warming.”
Imagine if he’d been a true believer.
His ardent embracing of centralism prompted me to write a column, headlined: Howard’s a true 1940s Labor man (April 12 2005), that highlighted a radio interview where he’d dropped his guard by sounding like an out-and-out Labor leader.
“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,” he said.
“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.”
That’s precisely what wartime PMs John Curtin and Ben Chifley contended.
They wanted local councils merged into larger regions controlled by Canberra.
And it’s precisely what Gough Whitlam, the next Labor PM (1972-75) had in mind with his plan to break the states up into regions.
I highlight this because now that Mr Howard is no longer PM he’s showing signs of moving back towards a traditional Liberal anti-centralist, that is, a federalist, stance.
Why wasn’t he a federalist when in power? Was it perhaps an over-refined desire to accumulate personal power?
Not widely realised is that the Gillard-Greens government is moving to implement Curtin-Chifley-style centralism that Mr Howard pedalled while PM.
So much so that Ms Gillard convened a panel, which not surprisingly, is headed by former NSW chief justice and onetime Whitlam staffer, James Spigelman.
Not surprising the Spigelman inquiry has recommended that the Gillard government hold a referendum to what’s been called ‘constitutional recognition of local government’.
What this will be is step one towards merging local authorities into regional units so they become increasingly dependent upon Canberra’s finances and political control.
Eventually these Canberra-created regional units will be transformed into fully-fledged centralised Canberra agencies, with state government powers increasingly sidelined.
State governments and parliaments will simply become superfluous, by slowly withering away.
The Australian Federal Police will absorb state polices forces by simultaneously creating regional divisions of a single federal police force.
The same will be repeated in education, health, transport, and all other departmental activities.
Now, remember just a handful of years ago Mr Howard was hailing such a regionalist path.
So what’s he said to the Spigelman inquiry? Here are a few lines from a recent press report on his submission to that inquiry.
“Whilst I respect very much the role of local government in our community I am not disposed to support a constitutional change,” he said.
“The historical evolution of our constitution has been one of colonies agreeing to form a Commonwealth.
“To use the clumsy jargon, local government units are ‘creatures’ of the states.
“In my opinion even a casual reference to local government in the constitution would end up having legal implications far beyond what might be advocated by the proponents of such a change.”
He’s absolutely correct.
But why wasn’t he so inclined towards federalism back when he was PM?
Local government is indeed a ‘creature’ of the states and clearly Gillard-led Canberra wants to see Labor’s long-time centralist leanings realised at long last, in 2013, after which Canberra can proceed towards ensuring the complete demise of the states.
When I’d concluded in early 2005 that Mr Howard was really an out-and-out Laborite on the crucial federalist question, I made inquiries that included contacting some who’d known and been watching him since he reached Canberra in 1974.
This provided a good perspective of him over a 20-year period.
The consensus was that he’d always quietly harboured centralist aspirations.
I received various explanations, with the one that remains most firmly in mind being that, like Mr Whitlam he’d been a Sydney lawyer who just happened to join the Liberal Party.
One informant said: “It could easily have been the other way around – Gough a Liberal and Johnnie as Laborite.”
That may sound cruel, but it’s a difficult to disagree.
Whatever has happened to Mr Howard since he left The Lodge in 2007, it’s clear he’s finally seen the Liberal light, that Australia would be a better, a more prosperous and congenial place, if all aspects of economic, social and political life weren’t totally dominated by Canberra, as he once sought to ensure happened.
Federalism means diversity and differences, with no single government within a federal entity permitted to acquire monopoly power across every area of governance – from policing, to education, to land tenure administration, to taxing, and so on.
It’s a pity he and so many other Liberal MPs forget this when they get to Canberra, and that our state Liberal MPs show no fire-in-the-belly to oppose them.