26/07/2005 - 22:00

Joe Poprzeczny: State Scene - Riding roughshod over states

26/07/2005 - 22:00


Upgrade your subscription to use this feature.

Long-time readers of this column will have noted that Canberra’s ongoing drive to gain ever-greater control over the affairs of the states isn’t a trend welcomed by State Scene.

Long-time readers of this column will have noted that Canberra’s ongoing drive to gain ever-greater control over the affairs of the states isn’t a trend welcomed by State Scene.

There are several reasons for this, not least that the two most virulent ideologies of the 20th century – Bolshevism and Nazism – had the total centralisation of power as their pivotal plank.

But there are other reasons, including the wisdom, as expressed by the turn of the 20th century British historian, Lord Acton, in that now-famous phrase, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely”.

Another is that the world’s most congenial nations – Australia, the US, Switzerland, Canada, and post-war Germany – are federations.

Some may baulk here at this, saying that the so-called Russian Federation can hardly be classified as a congenial polity. Although it is called a federation, Vladimir Putin’s Russia, unlike the federations mentioned, is a federation in name only.

It’s important to note that the former KGB officer has been rapidly centralising Russia, and so has been reverting to primitive Bolshevik governance precepts.

Federalism, on the other hand, means diversity and constitutional limitations upon political power by its diffusion across several centres – central, state and local government.

None of the reasons cited can be described as utilitarian, that is, being based on dollar and cents or accounting considerations, on which so many businessmen and politicians place so much value ahead of all else.

One doesn’t need to resort to monetary calculations when considering federalism because the world’s wealthiest nations tend to be federations. In other words, there’s a dollar and cents link, or outcome, whenever power is diffused as occurs within federations.

State Scene’s reasons for abiding by federalist governance principles, therefore, stem from historical experience as well as the insights of others.

Also worth noting is the fact that the federalist idea is a post-autocratic development, so it is a modern phenomenon, whereas centralism, the total control of subjects by rulers, is an inherent feature of pre-modern times.

The American federation was a late 18th century creation, while the Australian, Canadian and Swiss federations arose in the 19th century, and Germany’s emerged only in the 20th century, after the German people’s harsh experience within Adolf Hitler’s Ein Reich.

Notwithstanding this, many contemporary politicians worldwide are still attracted to pre-18th century practices of ever-expanding central power, meaning they wish to return to a medieval form of governance.

Now, until recently, the Australian Liberal Party espoused modern federalist sentiments, which is why so many Western Australians backed it at both the national and state levels.

Australian Labor, unfortunately, dumped its early support for Australia’s federal arrangements in 1921, soon after the Great War, which helps explain why Labor has held power nationally for only about a third of Australia’s history compared with the conservatives’ two thirds.

But, as stressed in State Scene over recent columns, the days of such a clear-cut demarcation between the major parties are passing, as the Howard Government’s centralist moves regarding Australian Technical Colleges illustrates.

But more on that later.

The so-far-electorally-successful John Howard is steadily remoulding the party of Robert Menzies to re-make it into something like post-1921 Labor.

‘Howardism’, therefore, has more in common with the immediate post-World War I years – when pre-modern centralism was passionately re-embraced by ideologues of both the left (most especially Vladimir Lenin and his worldwide followers) and the right (most especially Adolf Hitler and his disciples) – than with traditional and modern liberal thinking.

This hijacking of this party by a one-time Sydney lawyer will undoubtedly be investigated in years to come by political scientists and historians looking for the origins of post-2000 Howardism.

Some will contend it was the inevitable response of a prime minister facing only state and territory Labor governments. And, no doubt, there’s some truth here.

But my guess is that such investigation will show that Mr Howard is best understood by the fact that he’s a Sydneysider – like that other centralist lawyer and prime minister from Sydney, Gough Whitlam.

The major difference between both these power-seeking Sydneysiders is that Mr Whitlam opted for his party’s 1921 centralist plank immediately on entering federal politics.

Mr Howard, on the other hand, laid low for several decades before permitting his centralist yearnings to surface.Remember, when he reached Canberra in 1974 conservative premiers nationwide were demanding an end to strident Whitlamism and the new and confident Malcolm Fraser-led Liberals had adopted a re-invigorated federalist plank, dubbed New Federalism, that year.

The 1970s were, therefore, hardly a time for an ambitious Sydney lawyer and Liberal MP to go about trumpeting that he was a closet Whitlamite, which we now find Mr Howard to be.

Another notable difference of those who believe power should reside solely at one centre is that they tend to have uncompromising personalities.

Centralists tend not to be malleable. Most adherents of centralism are in fact quite intolerant and bossy.

Those who recall Australia’s three Whitlam years, 1972-73, may recall Mr Whitlam’s regular resorting to personal attacks upon individuals and critics, especially dissenting MPs.

He also tended to go in for bragging, like calling himself Australia’s greatest ever foreign minister, a portfolio he briefly allocated to himself on winning power late in 1972.

Put bluntly, Mr Whitlam was bombastic and overbearing, which is one reason so many traditional Labor voters cast their ballot for the Liberals in 1975.

Mr Howard, to date, has been quite the opposite. As well as being a mellower MP he also publicly portrays himself as a modest PM.

He’s not known to overly praise himself, and when highlighting his or his governments’ achievements it’s generally done in a restrained manner.

But are we about to begin seeing an end to this?

State Scene suspects so.

The first signs of arrogance have begun to surface. Consider this little noted instance.

Last week the Howard Government’s new Vocation and Technical Education Minister, Gary Hardgrave, named the applying consortia that will and administer 12 of the 24 Canberra-proposed and financed Australian Technical Colleges.

Since none of WA’s applying consortia was selected in that round of selections, State Scene contacted two of those groups in search of an explanation.

Both were contacted three days after the Hardgrave announcement had become public and each told State Scene they had, as yet, not been officially notified their bid was unsuccessful.

In other words, it would seem Canberra didn’t bother advising WA’s applying consortia that they’d failed to be chosen prior to releasing the press statement.

Moreover, since neither group had read the announcements in the press, they asked State Scene for details.

In the first case, State Scene was asked to email a copy of the Hardgrave press release, while in the second the consortium’s spokesman asked that the statement be read.

True, this isn’t a major scandal. Far from it. But whatever it was, it can’t be described as courteous treatment of people who had gone to considerable trouble and expense to prepare submissions to launch two of the earmarked and Canberra-financed ATCs that will, of course, duplicate the TAFE sector.

Is this the shape of things to come?


Subscription Options