Australia has had 25 prime ministers.
Australia has had 25 prime ministers.
Although the 25th, John Howard, and his spin-doctors promote the idea that he’s a virtual revisitation of Liberal Party founder, Robert Menzies, that’s not a convincing sales pitch.
Mr Howard has shown he’s got more in common with one of his failed Liberal predecessors, and a subsequent failed Labor PM – John Gorton and Gough Whitlam, respectively – than Menzies.
It’s become clear that he’s an ardent centralist, precisely what Messrs Gorton and Whitlam were, to their detriment.
In both cases their centralist obsession led to their political demise.
The phrase most often associated with Mr Gorton was one he uttered while addressing the WA Chamber of Manufacturers in September 1968: “You ain’t seen nothing yet”.
And the one most often associated with Mr Whitlam, though who coined it State Scene doesn’t know, was: “Crash through or crash”.
Both phrases suggest each realised he’d embarked on a risky path.
Some have even speculated to State Scene that they had what can be called a ‘kamikaze streak’ in their personalities.
Interestingly, although Mr Howard is still without such a crowning phrase – that’s if one ignores last election campaign’s “lying rodent” tag – he’s now irrevocably heading down that well-worn obsessive centralist path.
Like his two kamikaze predecessors he clearly has a burning desire for ever-greater power to put into the hands of Canberra’s tiny but already powerful bureaucratic elite.
Like Mr Gorton and Mr Whitlam, he’s declared a protracted war on state governments, wanting to see them steadily stripped of many of their traditional powers and responsibilities.
Thankfully, that’s something many long-time loyal Liberal rank and file members and voters still find abhorrent.
Whether he’ll go the way of John Gorton – who was forced to resign from the Liberal leadership and thus prime ministership – and of Gough Whitlam – famously sacked by a governor-general – only time will tell.
At this stage, however, we can say with confidence that Howardism isn’t overly popular in Western Australia.
In May former Liberal premier Richard Court addressed his party’s State Women’s Conference in what was a thought-provoking speech.
Not coincidently it was titled, ‘Is this the Federation John Forrest Envisaged’.
State Scene quotes only its conclusion.
“Federal governments need to clearly understand that the constitution does not give them total power in this country, even if they have the financial muscle to exert power,” Mr Court said.
“And I repeat that story my father fondly recalls Robert Menzies saying in the cabinet ante-room after a fiery and contentious premiers’ conference and loan council.
“‘Six state premiers send me up the wall but I would not have it any other way because it is our insurance against dictatorship.’
“John Forrest fought hard for WA’s best interests, which in turn were in Australia’s best interests.
“Today we all have a responsibility to do the same.”
Mr Court’s successor, Colin Barnett, who hails from the left wing of WA’s Liberal Party, also sent John Howard a hard-hitting message.
The Barnett broadside, carried in The Subiaco Post, wasn’t restricted to just the PM, but struck at Treasurer, Peter Costello, and Education Minister Brendan Nelson, the two ministers most closely associated with the centralist push.
“It seems to me we have federal ministers competing to show how tough they can be to belt up the states,” Mr Barnett said.
He then accused the PM of “stirring a class war that would damage Australia’s international reputation, particularly with its effects on big projects”.
The Post continued: “He [Barnett] said Mr Costello was being ridiculous when he said the federal government should take over water supplies.
“And he [Barnett] said Mr Nelson was absurd to push for a national school syllabus because that would drag WA down to the lowest-level state.”
And at last month’s Liberal Federal Council meeting, new WA Liberal leader Matt Birney moved a pro-federalism motion that was split into five parts, with all winning overwhelming backing from delegates.
As expected, those from NSW – where Mr Howard hails from – opposed the Birney motions.
So Mr Howard already has a hat-trick, with WA’s three most recent Liberal leaders speaking out publicly against his Gortonian or Whitlamesque centralism.
It’s as if the dying days of Messrs Gorton and Whitlam were reappearing.
But clearly they haven’t yet arrived.
There are several reasons for this, not least because Labor is in disarray at the national level due to its factionalism and sheer inability to think big and think originally.
Perhaps more importantly, Kim Beazley-led Labor has failed to grasp the potential seriousness of the emerging split within Liberal ranks over centralism.
One reason for Labor’s short-sightedness is that, since the 1920s, it has done more than any other Australian party to boost Canberra’s ascendancy over the states.
Moreover, Mr Beazley has, for all intents and purposes, vacated his Brand electorate to become the member for Sydney, where he now lives.
But a more disturbing aspect of Labor’s myopia is that when a senior member, such as WA Premier Geoff Gallop, gets the opportunity to show that he’ll defend the 1901 federal compact by embedding its intent into Labor’s platform as a plank, there’s resistance to doing it.
Last week State Scene quizzed Dr Gallop – who has indicated that becoming an MP in Canberra could be on his agenda – on the Howard centralising drive.
One simple question was put to him twice, and both times he failed to say that he’d move to formally commit Labor to the federalist principle.
State Scene: “When is the Labor Party – your colleague Mr Beazley – now that you people control all the states, going to declare that the ALP is to be a federalist party?”
Dr Gallop: “Well, I think we saw under the previous Labor government good relationships between the commonwealth and the states and we’d expect to have good relationships with the Beazley Labor government.
“What we’re now getting is a concerted push by the Commonwealth Government to take the powers off the states that we haven’t seen since the early 1970s [with Whitlam], and that was a totally different period and a totally different context.
“I think most commentators acknowledge that what’s going on currently is a concerted push for power that needs to be resisted.
“I’m very confident that the state Labor governments could have a cooperative and constructive relationship with a Beazley Labor government.
“But what we’re getting from John Howard is arrogance, an attempt to take powers away from the states, and in the process take something away from what’s currently making Australia such a constructive and productive part of the world.”
State Scene: “But, put it into your platform, your national platform, a federalist program. Give up your old centralist ways.”
Dr Gallop: “Well, I think you’ve seen from the activities of the Labor Party that all of the state governments are playing a constructive role using the powers they have under the constitution to deliver better results for people, and we’re going to make sure that we preserve the integrity of our federal system.”
Despite Mr Howard now treading down the Gorton-Whitlam kamikaze path, there’s a distinct refusal by Labor to grasp this unique opportunity of a growing split in Liberal voter ranks to officially commit Labor to federalism, something that could help win it national government if it did so.