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Joe Poprzeczny, State Scene - Local councils safe for now

WA has its fair share of local government controversies, among them the bizarre Wanneroo Council royal commission.

More recently, South Perth Council was put on ice, and Joondalup is currently in some turmoil over an appointment.

Ratepayers become perplexed when such affairs surface in suburban give-aways and are followed-up in the mainstream media, prompting parliamentary questions.

Naturally when such revelations surface, Australia’s local or third-tier level of government is tarnished, prompting some to advocate its abolition.

Others go further by promoting replacement of State and local governments to create an all-encompassing second tier of government that’s territorially smaller than States but larger than municipalities.

Proponents of this nearly 85-year-old idea may not realise that it has a quizzical history.

The idea of a second tier displacing State and municipal levels surfaced soon after World War I and was promptly enshrined in the Australian Labor Party’s platform at its 1921 national conference.

Known as Labor’s centralisation or unification plank its main proponent was Melbourne left-wing lawyer Maurice Blackburn, who also ensured Labor concurrently embraced a socialisation plank.

Although Labor was to dump the latter by 1970 to help it become a ‘catch-all party’, its centralisation-unification thinking survived a further 15 or so years.

Not until Labor re-emerged under Bob Hawke in the 1980s and concurrently in several States, including WA under Brian Burke, did it finally discard its 1920s Blackburn centralisation blueprint.

And this despite Mr Hawke – during an Australian Broadcasting Corporation Boyer Lecture – actually advocating abolition of the States.

That, briefly, is the origin of this centralist plan, which in 1920 even resulted in the drawing-up of a map showing Australia subdivided into 31 provinces.

In WA, Perth and Fremantle were to become one province; the Mid West and Pilbara another; the South West and Wheatbelt a third, and the eastern Goldfields the fourth.

The Kimberley was to be merged into the Northern Territory.

Labor’s 1921 national conference adopted the following.

“Unlimited legislative powers for the Commonwealth Parliament and such delegated powers to the States or Provinces as the Commonwealth parliament may determine from time to time.

“The Commonwealth Parliament to be vested with the authority to create new States or provinces.

“The Senate to be abolished.”

With all power enshrined in the House of Representatives and Australia to be without States there would naturally be no need for a Senate, or States’, house.

Prime Minister John Howard’s recent suggestion for weakening the Senate is interesting in light of this Labor notion.

The 31-province, or Blackburn, plan was promoted by claiming Australia would follow in the shadows of South Africa and New Zealand.

It’s also worth noting that Labor’s plan resembled what a young Austrian activist then proselytizing across Germany actually did on gaining power in 1933.

That man, Adolf Hitler, promptly dismantled Germany’s Weimar federated arrangements to create administrative gaue (regions) under Berlin’s total control.

Centrally appointed Gauleiters headed these, with 43 gaue operating by 1942.

Hitler, like early Labor ideologues, was ardently pro-centralist, which explains his criticism of federalism in Chapter X of his big-selling book Mein Kampf, titled Federalism as a Mask.

However, each of the proposed 31 provinces would have had a legislature dependent on the national government, like municipalities depend on State governments.

If uniform taxation ultimately emerged these provinces would have become even more dependent on Canberra than States are today.

Because Labor favoured the long-forgotten levelling imputed rent tax on private homes – annually adding a set percentage of the value of all homes to taxpayers’ taxable incomes for progressive taxing – municipal rating would become redundant.

All municipal employees would be transformed into provincial workers and it’s likely they’d become members of a single national public service. Continent-wide uniformity would reign supreme.

Clearly the 31-province, or Blackburn, plan would have markedly increased central government or Canberra control.

But Labor did not gain power until 1929, and when it held office in the 1930s the Depression pre-occupied its leadership, so implementing the Blackburn plan to abolish States and municipalities and create centrally controlled provinces couldn’t be launched.

When next in power in the 1940s Chifley-led Labor, under its post-war reconstruction program, headed by Western Australian HC ‘Nugget’ Coombs, returned to the Blackburn blueprint with moves to create more than 100 centrally controlled regions, something the pro-federalist Menzies Liberals discontinued after 1949.

Between 1972-75 the Whitlam Government revived the regionalising of Australia with the powerful Tom Uren-headed Department of Urban and Regional Development. WA was divided into 10 regions.

To ensure this succeeded Labor launched the crucial Australian Assistance Plan case in the High Court – and won – which probably prompted the Democrats to embrace the 1920s Blackburn thinking in 1978.

“The Democrats believe that our sub-national government should evolve toward a regional structure,” a Democrat policy document reads.

With Labor today controlling all State governments and with solid backing within many municipalities Australia-wide its leaders have ceased favouring abolishing the State and municipal tiers, meaning local government, despite the occasional scandal, will be around for decades to come.

Today the Democrats and Greens are left promoting centrally controlled regional governance.

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