09/06/2011 - 00:00

States need to take the fight to Canberra

09/06/2011 - 00:00


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Canberra’s bureau­cratic double-handling is costing all the states too much.

HERE are some lines from a speech to a lunchtime business group delivered by Premier Colin Barnett.

“We are not seeing only an economic shift in this nation, to the west, to the north, we are also seeing a shift in the political balance in this country,” he said.

“I’m not a secessionist, I’m not saying Australia is going to fall apart, but there is an unravelling of Australia’s Commonwealth-state relations and there is an unravelling of the financial relations that have underpinned the federation.

“So we are seeing changes, they may seem slow and tiny at the moment, but I suspect in 10 or 20 years’ time, there will be a very different economic, political and financial structure in Australia.”

Unfortunately, like so much of what Mr Barnett says, when put up to the light it’s just recycled platitudes.

Sounds reasonable, even feasible. But on closer inspection, not much was really said.

Let Mr Barnett or his speechwriters produce one address where he’s actually said something farsighted, incisive or proactive on power-hungry Canberra’s ever-more centralist approach – beyond solely focusing on getting a few extra dollars.

The Barnett years are steadily fading and look set to be ones of no fundamental or farsighted root-and-branch reform.

Put otherwise ... don’t expect anything, except more of the same.

In 10 or 20 years Mr Barnett won’t be in public life.

Like his four immediate predecessors he’ll either be in an academic ivory tower – Carmen Lawrence at the University of WA, Geoff Gallop at Sydney University – or in a Perth corporate job like Richard Court and Alan Carpenter.

And, contrary to what he claims to “suspect”, nothing fundamental would have changed. Canberra will still call the shots and states will continue as underlings of quangos like COAG, the Grants Commission, and dependence upon tied and special-purpose grants.

If Mr Barnett really was a reformist he’d by now have charted a course and blueprint for Western Australia for those 10 or 20 years, rather than merely claiming he suspects things will be different.

Because neither he nor anyone in his cabinet has ever demonstrated interest in farsighted federalist initiatives, let’s offer them some advice.

First and foremost, let it be said we shouldn’t fear the word ‘secession’, which he seemingly does.

State Scene has stopped counting the number of times the premier has publicly stated he’s not a secessionist.

He appears to relish using the word, just so he can promptly deny its application to him.

State Scene, however, is a secessionist, and what’s more, extremely proud of it.

Not, however, a secessionist of WA’s failed 1930s variety; but most definitely a secessionist of the modern federalist variant; that’s quite different.

Western Australians should aspire to secede, but not from the other five states, not from two thirds of a continent the great Matthew Flinders named Australia.

Quite the contrary.

We’re Australians as much as they and must remain so, as indeed Australia’s Constitution so clearly prescribes we must, and WA’s 1933 two-to-one winning pro-secession referendum failed to change.

What our blatantly unimaginative state politicians should therefore be working towards is laying administrative governance foundations for WA to secede from Canberra, the power grasping Australian Capital Territory, not from Australia.

That’s a huge difference.

Seceding from Canberra-based mandarins, ridding ourselves of things like the intrusive COAG – where east coast Canberra-based politicians and bureaucrats sticky-beak and determine our financial and other affairs – is what’s urgently needed.

Scrapping wasteful entities like those tied and special purposes grants, and all other costly and duplicating paraphernalia of failed Canberra-style centralism that Mr Barnett seems comfortable with, is the way to go.

That’s different to seceding from Australia.

Moreover, with imaginative thinking and fruitful work, not only is that type of targeted secession feasible, but we’d quickly find Queenslanders following our lead.

And freeloading states would need to get their financial and administrative act together, live within their means and stop constantly expecting aid from others via costly Canberra bureaucratically devised formulas.

Unfortunately neither Mr Barnett nor his four premier predecessors ever aspired to seeing WA becoming truly independent within the framework of a vibrant federal, not an increasingly centralised, nation.

Like his predecessors, all he ever wants is to tinker a little here and there in the hope of getting extra dollars somehow, while basically remaining dependent on Canberra.

This column has for many years outlined that burdensome duplication – Canberra crowding out WA on state responsibilities and seeking to monopolise taxation – costing Australians more than $20 billion annually.

That’s more than $1,000 for every Australian man, woman, child and infant and the real measure of costly duplicating centralism.

All such duplication should be scrapped – the sooner the better.

This most especially means completely ousting Canberra’s mandarins from involvement in areas like health, education and environmental affairs, which are state responsibilities.

Where does Mr Barnett stand on that? He’s never heard on the question of this rampant duplication, Canberra’s endless habit of devouring areas of state responsibility.

If he was a serious-minded federal reformist he’d not just be sitting about telling us what he suspects may or may not occur in a decade or two.

He’d have already set about drawing up a blueprint for the discarding of the massive levels of costly duplication that prevails and continues hampering Australia, and thus every taxpayer, and not just WA ones.

That means he should have convened a state parliamentary all-party federalism committee, whose members should have firstly read and memorised Section 51 of Australia’s Constitution with its 39 sub-sections that spell-out Canberra’s duties.

Thereafter they should identify all the intrusions Canberra has embarked upon into state affairs since Federation and what they’re currently costing Western Australians.

After that, WA should begin moving to oust Canberra from these duplicating areas, since they, by right of the 1901 Constitution, are WA’s affairs.

And the savings Canberra would make by withdrawal from these activities within WA should be forfeited to WA’s Treasury with commensurate tax cuts for Western Australians.

In the longer-term, by which is meant within 10 years, so by about 2020, when Canberra has been steadily removed from areas of control and outlay it should never have been allowed to acquire, all premiers should meet to devise what segment of the nation’s corporate and income tax revenues should go to their respective treasuries and what to Canberra’s.

Proper and just taxation revenue sharing should be instituted, not only of GST revenues.

Canberra’s bureaucratic leviathans should become leaner, less intrusive, more focused and streamlined, with duties pared back to primarily defence, immigration, overall national economic policy, social welfare responsibilities, and the other of the 39 areas listed in the Constitution.

Nothing else.

Let the states democratically administer the rest themselves, determine their own priorities and not remain distant Canberra dependencies.

That’s what Australia’s founders envisaged; a federal, diversified, nation, not a centralised, bureaucratically gridlocked one.

Their vision was not of a nation where hardworking Australians were compelled to carry the tax burden of bureaucratic duplication due to lack of fortitude by inactive premiers.


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