02/11/2004 - 21:00

Joe Poprzeczny: State Scene - Howard’s way a bit Whitlamesque

02/11/2004 - 21:00


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As the Howard years – which began in March 1996 with John Howard’s crushing of Mark Latham’s mentor and hero, Paul Keating – have rolled on, some Liberals have become noticeably concerned.

Joe Poprzeczny: State Scene - Howard’s way a bit Whitlamesque

As the Howard years – which began in March 1996 with John Howard’s crushing of Mark Latham’s mentor and hero, Paul Keating – have rolled on, some Liberals have become noticeably concerned.

The reason for their apprehension is that they perceive their innocuous looking ex-Sydney lawyer and national leader has a strong interest in costly centralist programs.

Several years ago a Liberal urged State Scene to look closely at the Howard Government’s penchant for bypassing State Governments in its disbursement of grants to areas normally associated with State responsibilities.

State Scene concluded that this dispersion of centralist grants was a temporary aberration that would cease once the Howard-Costello GST reforms had fallen into place, with State Government revenues finally being based upon a growing tax base.

But no. The opposite has happened.

Howard-style Liberalism – Howardism – promises to continue expanding centralist programs into areas of traditional State governance and responsibility.

In other words, we’re seeing intrusion into areas that earlier generations of Liberals had vehemently objected to when these were proposed, promoted and practised by Labor Governments.

For those who may have forgotten the rabidly centralist Whitlam years (1972-75), the major Liberal objection was that ex-Sydney lawyer, Prime Minister Gough Whitlam – Mark Latham’s other mentor and hero – sought to ensure Canberra bureaucrats controlled virtually everything, with State Governments eventually being made redundant.

Liberals objected so vehemently to ‘Whitlamism’ that they stretched Australia’s constitutional clauses and conventions to breaking point, and by engineering the sacking of that Labor government by a, later maligned, governor general.

Yet, less than 30-years later, another ex-Sydney lawyer, one with a Liberal tag, is proceeding down that very same path with this time n’er a squeak from Liberal MPs, State or Federal.

Take the following Howard election promise in relation to secondary education, long a traditional State responsibility.

“Twenty four technical colleges will be established at a cost of $289 million, to provide secondary school students with training in key trades,” it says.

“Apprentices in trades suffering a skills shortage will be eligible for a new Commonwealth Trade Learning Scholarship; by 2006-07, almost 60,000 apprentices will be receiving these scholarships.

“To further encourage young people into trades, the Coalition will extend the Youth Allowances and Austudy to apprentices; this initiative will cost $410 million over three years but will assist up to 93,000 new apprentices by 2008-09.”

A general outline, embellished with idealistic claims and justifications, has been released on the 24 proposed so-called technical colleges.

But when all is said and done the colleges will simply be Federally funded public-private partnership (PPP) high schools that offer trade training plus tertiary entrance examination courses.

Western Australia has been earmarked to get one in the Pilbara with some saying there may be another in the Kwinana region.

As if WA didn’t already have adequate high schools and Technical and Further Education (TAFE) colleges.

Why Canberra is getting into funding and creating special purpose high schools is baffling.

Have Howard Liberal MPs already forgotten that they’ve got enough to do in areas like national defence, homeland security, reformation of a range of bottlenecks that hinder the national economy, and the looming impact of an ageing population.

Not surprisingly, and rightly, WA Education and Training Minister Allan Carpenter has objected, and reminded them that secondary and technical education is a State responsibility and that something called TAFE exists.

In other words we’ve got a State Labor minister defending a State responsibility from a centralist Liberal Government’s encroachment; it’s the Whitlam years in reverse.

Regular State Scene readers may recall the highlighting on May 6 of an important House of Representatives Economics Committee (HREC) report, which revealed duplication between Australia’s various tiers of government was currently costing taxpayers $20 billion annually.

“That means every man, woman, child and infant is being charged $1,000 annually for this huge exercise in extravagant doubling-up annual super spending spree,” State Scene said.

By 2009 add to that $20 billion, which will rise by at least the inflation rate, a further $700 million (maybe as much as $1 billion) for 24 Federally funded PPP high schools that Mr Howard has undertaken to provide.

Now, it must be stressed that no-one is objecting to boosting training funding in what’s called the blue-collar areas. Far from it.

What’s at issue, pure and simple, is the escalating duplication, something Australia can ill-afford.

A closer look at the Howard technical education PPP proposal shows that Howardism, far from being federalist, is shaping up to adopt what’s best described as a competitive centralist ideology – Canberra competing in State areas of responsibility – which means even more duplication.

Saying this doesn’t deny that the Howard PPP high schools aren’t without some merit.

If, by chance, they perform above already established TAFE standards it will simply show up State governments for having sat on their hands for too long.

That said, what is the way – the federalist way – out of the predicament the Howard competitive and duplicating centralist path has created?

The answer isn’t difficult to find.

Now that the Howard Liberals have decided to move down a competitive centralist path by promising a $700 million-plus secondary educational program, that undertaking should be honored.

But if these counter-TAFE PPP high schools prove successful, negotiations should be launched in three to five years with State governments for them to be taken over and operated by the States – in accordance with the original 2004 Howard charter, since by then it would have been tried and tested.

That way Canberra can start vacating the secondary educational area, into which it should never have stepped, and the duplication can begin being rolled-back.

Liberals could use that opportunity to at long last begin returning to their once proudly held federalist beliefs, and to start implementing some of the findings of the 2003 HREC report.

Liberals should be warned that if their competitive centralist approach persists then, when a Latham-led, or Stephen Smith, Wayne Swan or Julia Gillard-led Labor government emerges and recommences pursuing traditional Labor centralism, they’ll have no grounds for objecting.

They shouldn’t forget the old saying about geese and ganders.

If they do and subsequent Liberals complain about Labor’s centralism, State Scene will take delight in reminding them that Howardism was Whitlamism in Liberal garb.


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