28/08/2007 - 22:00

Howard losing battle of ideas

28/08/2007 - 22:00


Save articles for future reference.

Since about April, all of State Scene’s best informants have said that the coming federal election would be held in November; in other words, later rather than sooner.

Howard losing battle of ideas

Since about April, all of State Scene’s best informants have said that the coming federal election would be held in November; in other words, later rather than sooner.

The reason is that Labor leader, Kevin Rudd, unexpectedly put his party ahead in the polls over a protracted period rather than just enjoying a brief honeymoon, then plateauing or even sliding.

Even now, his honeymoon hasn’t ended, though the introduction of what British Labour called ‘sleaze’ with the revelation of his Manhattan strip bar sojourn may shave several points in coming polls.

What’s puzzling is that, despite Labor’s sizeable lead, some still believe Mr Rudd won’t enjoy the sweet taste of victory.

Not in 2007, at least.

Lingering doubts remain.

That’s just one unusual aspect of the current campaign.

Stranger still is the fact that Mr Rudd is leading Labor towards what’s shaping up as a platform of new federalism, whereas John Howard continues to thump his old drum of ever-more Canberra centralism.

The PM has even given it a new name – “aspirational nationalism” – since he thinks that helps camouflage his ongoing interventionism.

In other words, Howardism means more power to Canberra’s mandarins and their bureaucracies, ever more costly duplication, and ever-higher taxes, which is exactly what isn’t needed.

The reason that’s so strange is that Labor, since 1921, has been Australia’s party of centralist control. It’s various non-Labor rivals – the 1920s Nationalists, 1930s United Australia Party, and Liberals from 1944 until 1996, when Mr Howard became PM – stood for states’ rights, enhancement and preservation of the federation, limited government, lower taxes, and self-help.

For decades Labor wanted to see the states scrapped and replaced by 31 centrally controlled satellites it called provinces. State parliaments and the Senate were to be abolished.

But today it’s Mr Howard who wants states to become Canberra’s satellites rather than stand-alone entities, which makes the present election campaign not only strange, but unique.

This has never happened.

Laborite Kevin Rudd is what Liberal John Howard should be and John Howard is what Kevin Rudd could be expected to be.

We can debate for time immemorial why it’s turned out this way.

State Scene prefers simple explanations.

Mr Howard is a Sydneysider who’s been in federal politics since 1974 – a whopping 33-years – and simply can’t envisage Australia without Canberra doing or wanting to do everything.

He wants Canberra bureaucrats poking their noses into anything and everything, which suggests the federal treasury simply has too much of taxpayers’ money. We’re being overtaxed, and vastly so.

Most Sydneysider politicians – Liberal and Labor – see Canberra as an outer Sydney suburb, a hop-step-and-jump beyond Parramatta.

For West Aussies to comprehend this, one needs to imagine Australia’s national capital being situated somewhere between Kellerberrin and Merredin, just over the Darling Scarp.

Mr Rudd, a Queenslander, even though leading Australia’s long-time centralist party, wisely doubts the efficacy of Canberra doing all.

That’s significant because the sentiment in Queensland is still as it was once in WA – more strongly federalist.

It’s no longer so here because WA’s federal Liberal MPs swallowed Howardism after 1996 and continue doing so to this day.

Their great betrayal was led by ex-senator Ian Campbell, senator Chris Ellison and Curtin MHR, Julie Bishop, meaning it’s time the WA and national Liberal Parties were wound up and a new federally oriented entity created.

But back to Mr Rudd.

Not only is he influenced by Queensland’s federalist sentiment – remember that’s the state of the late Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen, the premier who did more than anyone to rid Australia of Gough Whitlam and his arch-centralism – for some time he was the senior bureaucrat in Wayne Goss’s Labor government.

Unlike Mr Howard, who resembles Mr Whitlam, Mr Rudd retains a feel for state governance, something the Campbells, Ellisons and Bishops of WA’s ideologically bankrupt Liberal Party wouldn’t understand, let alone appreciate and then fight for.

For this reason, Mr Rudd’s calls for winding back the power, intrusion and interference of distant Canberra in the traditional affairs of the states isn’t just strange, but most welcomed.

Even where he has proposed greater possible federal involvement in state affairs – such as his announcement last week of a plan to fix the nation’s hospitals – Mr Rudd has taken a more cooperative, consultative approach than his opponent.

It’s something tens of thousands of rusted-on Liberal voters Australia-wide could give more thought to before again voting Liberal, since they became stolid Liberal backers because that party – before Mr Howard became leader – believed in what Mr Rudd is now advocating.

This column has highlighted several times that duplication across all levels of government was estimated to be costing taxpayers about $20 billion.

That figure is from a report I no longer have but was carried in a report of an economics committee chaired by the now House of Representatives speaker, David Hawker, either in 2001 or 2002.

Moreover, that $20 billion estimate probably now stands at around $25 billion; and if Howardism persists it will further balloon.

In other words, it’s now well over $1,000 for every man, woman and child, or more than $2,000 annually for every taxpayer.

That’s a national scandal of enormous, indeed, monumental, proportions, that the Howard government has done absolutely nothing about in 11 years of massive ongoing vote buying.

Howardism means moving the other way; further compounding costly duplication and unnecessary Canberra computer paper shuffling.

This, with Mr Howard’s foolish claims that doing what Mr Rudd suggests is wrong, means all that talk of him and his treasurer, Melbournean Peter Costello, being a competent economic management team flies in the face of easily verifiable facts that indicate the contrary.

Howardism means ever-mounting duplication and ongoing power grabbing by Sydney and Melbourne-based politicians who have the numbers in Canberra to further burden taxpayers Australia-wide with more controls and greater intrusion.

For this reason, Mr Rudd’s signal that he’ll unhitch Canberra’s bureaucrats from dabbling in so many traditional state areas by winding down so-called tied grants is the most welcome feature of the current campaign.

Too much emphasis has been placed on the fact that Mr Howard is 68 years old and is allegedly too doddery for Australia’s top political post.

That’s simply nonsense.

What Labor should be doing is emphasising that it’s Mr Howard’s political outlook, his outdated centralist ideology and practices, which Labor once promoted, that are doddery, outdated and costly to taxpayers.

Centralism means duplication, ever-higher taxation, more distant bureaucrats, governance by those far away from where public money is being spent, and thus a greater likelihood of misspending, since local knowledge is generally absent.

More Howardism means Australia will continue evolving into a cumbersome tax-burdened vote-buying super-nanny state; the road to disaster.

Australia’s founding fathers – WA’s first premier, John Forrest, among them – wisely opted for a federalist, decentralised, governing arrangement so that a huge all-powerful single central government couldn’t emerge.

Unfortunately the power of Sydney and Melbourne – Mr Howard’s and Mr Costello’s home towns respectively – and interpretations by High Court judges, who also generally hail from those cities, have steadily diminished the power of the states via Canberra’s bureaucracy.

Anyone doubting this should ask themselves how many prime ministers, treasurers and High Court judges Australia has had since 1901 who hailed from beyond NSW and Victoria.

Only five of 25 PMs have been from outside NSW and Victoria – three Queenslanders (Andrew Fisher, Arthur Fadden, for 39 days, and Frank Forde for one week); one Tasmanian, Joseph Lyons; and one Western Australian, Victorian-born, John Curtin.

The dangerous centralist leviathan was fully appreciated in the 1890s, which is why Australia’s founding fathers embraced what political scientists call subsidiarity – the “principle which states that matters ought to be handled by the smallest (or, the lowest) competent authority”.

Put otherwise: “The idea that a central authority should have a subsidiary function, performing only those tasks which cannot be performed effectively at a more immediate or local level.”

The opposite is happening under the Howard-Costello approach – Canberra has been snatching as much as possible with the states destined to become subsidiaries. Today it’s rivers, hospitals, schools, water, ports, uranium mining go-aheads and corporations powers.

Tomorrow something else – there’s always something else.

It’s not Mr Howard’s body, it’s his thinking on governance that’s geriatric.

Thankfully Mr Rudd – a man with some strange flaws that this column hasn’t hesitated highlighting – is the modernist in this area, since he’s showing signs of turning Labor around towards adhering to the subsidiarity principle, something that’s undoubtedly made easier since all states are Labor controlled.

Not only should he be commended, but rusted-on Liberals who’ve claimed for decades they were genuine federalist must seriously consider voting for Rudd-led Labor.


Subscription Options