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Money is the weapon in this war

By Bruce Haigh - posted Thursday, 13 September 2007


Messing about with structures will not solve the underlying problems of governance besetting Australia.

Successive federal governments, culminating in the Howard Government, have been users not nurturers. They have not value added.

At the root of the problem is a failure to respect or understand the nature of democracy. To be successful, a democracy requires understanding, commitment, respect and constant nurturing. Over the past 30 years we have witnessed an abuse of democracy through ignorance, selfishness and greed. This immaturity has been reflected and encouraged by our elected leaders at all levels of government and by the media.

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How can local government be held accountable with the appallingly low standards maintained by many local newspapers, TV and radio stations in rural Australia? This observation applies equally to the state and federal sphere. It would not matter what reforming structures were put in place, they soon come undone in the absence of public scrutiny.

Government in Australia is adversarial. Howard v the People, Howard v the States, the States v Local Government: all levels of government complain about lobby groups, special interest groups, minority groups, yet the adversarial system creates them. The squeaky wheel gets attention. No vision, no decision-making on a needs basis and no equitable distribution of resources.

Money is the weapon in this war. The Commonwealth collects 80 per cent of revenue, the states spend, indeed are required to spend 50 per cent. There is a shortfall: state and local government consistently get the rough end of the stick.

Beattie’s solution has been to apply downward pressure (it’s easier) on local government. But issues of local government are more complex and while amalgamations might offer some temporary relief it will not solve underlying problems. It is an unimaginative solution but what can we expect from a man who is about to sell 8,000 megalitres of water from the Warrego River to major irrigators, the same group that Howard will favour under his flawed Murray-Darling “proposal”.

Control over the collection and distribution of money gives Howard the whip hand. It is power. This power has been abused by a succession of federal governments, treasurers and prime ministers as they played with politics rather than implement policies and acted with short rather than long term vision.

Changing structures will not necessarily change the nature of government. For as long as we elect less than average individuals to the three levels of government nothing will change, no matter what we do with the structures. For as long as journalists remain more concerned with the mortgage than morality our political process will continue in decline no matter how we redefine the structures.

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If we choose not to get involved in the political process, other than at election time, we should not complain about branch stacking; a perversion of the political process that delivers the lowest common denominator as a candidate. A change of structure will not ensure honesty or good intent and without them even the best designed political structure will fail.

It is obscene and immoral that the Howard Government has a surplus of $17 billion of tax payers' money in the run up to the election with the prospect that they will spend some or all of it on short term schemes to get re-elected. For as long as governments behave like that, and are allowed to behave like that, no re-jigging of the structure will reform the political process. Checks and balances to curb the abuse of power is probably the best we can hope for if the national interest proves insufficient to direct and govern political behaviour.

The debate over the future system of government has been launched by the political opportunism of Howard. An investigation into his abuse of power and how it was made possible will provide a guide to the weaknesses in government and how best they might be addressed.

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About the Author

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and retired diplomat who served in Pakistan and Afghanistan in 1972-73 and 1986-88, and in South Africa from 1976-1979

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