15/02/2005 - 21:00

Joe Poprzeczny: State Scene - Move east is a push to the centre

15/02/2005 - 21:00


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Now that Labor’s all-powerful Sydney-based rightist faction, with which Kim Beazley is associated, has again made him leader it’s worth considering the likelihood of him being successful in his third tilt at the nation’s top job.

Now that Labor’s all-powerful Sydney-based rightist faction, with which Kim Beazley is associated, has again made him leader it’s worth considering the likelihood of him being successful in his third tilt at the nation’s top job.

Soon after securing the Labor leadership Mr Beazley spoke to the press.

One interviewer remarked: “A little bit of work to do, a mixed response, but ‘a nice bloke, I won’t vote for him’, is a bit of a worry.

Mr Beazley replied: “Well, look, I think what we have to prove over the course of the next three years is that we’re ready for government and that change is necessary.

“So as I said in my opening remarks after the ballot for Labor Party leadership we’re going to have to sharpen the differences in a few areas, in areas where I think people want a sharpened difference. You’ll see that.”

Will we? And in precisely which areas?

State Scene is particularly intrigued by Mr Beazley’s claim that he’ll “sharpen the differences in a few areas, in areas where I think people want a sharpened difference”.

Only time will tell if Mr Beazley’s claim that he’s determined to offer a genuine and electorally acceptable “sharpened difference” occurs.

One crucial area he’ll almost certainly ignore, but shouldn’t if he’s really keen on winning in 2007, is federal relations, since Labor hasn’t taken federalism – the division, or decentralisation, of power – at all seriously since 1921.

Since then its invariably backed ever-encroaching power for a central administration over Australia’s six states which, 105-years ago, created a federal nation – not a unitary one – so that power didn’t inevitably gravitate to the two most populous capitals of Sydney and Melbourne.

So State Scene won’t need to tell a defeated Mr Beazley in 2007 that he shouldn’t have ignored this perhaps seemingly unimportant issue, here’s an early warning that could be the difference between being elected PM or not.

But first some historical background.

Between 1901 and 1921 Labor, like its conservative counterparts, wasn’t overly centralist in outlook.

But in the latter year it embraced a centralist plank, primarily because of its then master ideologist, Melbourne lawyer Maurice Blackburn.

Thereafter all Labor leaders and most Labor MPs worked assiduously to reduce the powers of the states by boosting Canberra’s.

The Blackburn blueprint was to replace the states with 36 centrally controlled provinces, thus the scrapping of state parliaments and the Senate.

Australia’s sole legislature would be the House of Representatives, which in Blackburn’s words would have “unlimited power”, meaning of course greater power for Melbourne’s and Sydney’s MPs.

During World War II Western Australia’s first and last national Labor leader, John Curtin, sought to enshrine Blackburnist centralism into legislation by referendum but, thankfully, failed.

After the war his successor, Ben Chifley, through Labor’s post war reconstruction socialisation program, divided Australia into more than 100 regional units that were to slowly sideline the states. These were, thankfully, scrapped by the non-Labor coalition after it won the crucial 1949 election.

That Robert Menzies-created coalition strongly backed federalism, which is one reason it retained power into the 1970s.

That’s something Mr Beazley shouldn’t forget, since it could be crucial in his latest move to become PM.

When that coalition was defeated in 1972 Labor and Australia’s new leader, Sydneysider Gough Whitlam, resurrected the Blackburn-Curtin-Chifley desire to steadily obliterate the states.

All non-Labor premiers between 1972-75 realised this with the bravest of them, Queensland’s Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen, deciding in 1974 to do something about it.

He promptly hired as consultant a brilliant former Adelaide University academic constitutional lawyer, Professor Daniel O’Connell, then an Oxford don, to help analyse and devise ways of blocking Labor’s resurgent 1920s Blackburn program.

Queensland’s recently-released 1974 cabinet papers reveal that Sir Joh, on O’Connell’s advice, set about dismantling the centralist Whitlam Government, which he did with some help from Victorian Malcolm Fraser and Western Australian senator Reg Withers.

We shouldn’t forget that Mr Beazley’s father, also Kim, a Whitlam Government minister, was part of the 1970s centralist push.

And State Scene has yet to see any evidence that the son differs from his father and Gough Whitlam in opposing a slow but deliberate drift towards Blackburn’s 1921 goal.

Now, it’s here that this underlying and potentially crucial issue may again become relevant, this time in relation to Mr Beazley’s prime ministerial ambitions.

Although few have yet realised it, Sydneysider John Howard has, since dislodging Sydneysider Paul Keating, steadily embraced centralisation, a strange decision for a non-Labor leader in light of his hero Robert Menzies’ immediate post-1949 record.

One reason for this is that all the states are now Labor-controlled, so an element of rivalry partly explains this.

Another is that Mr Howard’s a Sydneysider and most politicians from there, whether Labor or Liberal, have little respect for outer, and weaker, power centres such as Brisbane or Perth.

Australians are hearing little of Howard centralism primarily because the Labor premiers haven’t opposed it since they, like Mr Beazley, accept Blackburnism as desirable and inevitable.

No current Labor premier matches Sir Joh in clarity of perception or doggedness.

And since no-one on Labor’s side has yet publicly objected to Howard centralism, most Liberal voters are still unaware of it.

But exist it does, most especially in the educational area, with other areas naturally in the sights.

Federal Education Minister Brendan Nelson, another Sydney-sider, is presently seeking to take complete control of universities.

Mr Howard is about to challenge the states’ TAFE systems by creating 24 Canberra-controlled technical schools – two of them in WA.

Last month Health Minister Tony Abbott, another Sydneysider, revealed at a Young Liberals’ national conference that the fourth Howard Government will move towards a greater control by Canberra of a range of areas, from health, to education, to labour relations, and more.

Mr Abbott chose his words carefully when disclosing this, knowing that many Liberal voters will undoubtedly be uncomfortable with the Coalition Government secretly embracing Blackburnism, something non-Labor governments had doggedly opposed between 1921 and the mid 1990s.

“When it is so difficult to maintain neat distinctions between who does what in practice, how realistic is it to maintain them in theory?” Mr Abbott said.

“And once the Commonwealth Government is engaged in any particular area of responsibility, how can it avoid the demand to provide leadership?

“These questions are likely to consume a great deal of time and energy during the Howard Government’s fourth term.”

Indeed they are.

If Mr Beazley were smart he’d note these words and closely watch how the Sydneysider-dominated Howard Government treats federal affairs.

State Scene’s guess is he’ll instead assiduously avoid federal affairs – and not only because he’s never demonstrated immunity from Labor’s longstanding Blackburnist ideology but also because the first thing he did on re-emerging as Labor leader was to move base from his seat of Brand to become a Sydneysider.

Hardly an encouraging example of “a sharpened difference” with the new, Sydneysider ‘Black-burnist’, John Howard.


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