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Under a centralising Federal Government

By Bruce Haigh - posted Monday, 19 May 2008


Under a centralising Federal government, what is the future for States’ rights and the separation of powers embodied in the Constitution?

The short answer to that question is none. However, if the rights and needs of Australians are to be protected substantial checks and balances must be built into our political system.

The acquisition of power by the Commonwealth was underway before the ink was dry on the Premiers’ signatures in 1901. The process was hastened by two world wars, a Depression, a Cold War and a War on Terror. Climate change will complete the “transfer”.

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The Constitution is only as effective as people, the parliament, courts, the public service, the media, interest and religious groups want it to be.

I am no constitutional expert but to me the constitution seems a rotten apple, eaten away by a grubby political process that has had scant regard for democracy.

Over the past 12 years we saw a government, closely followed by a politicised public service, use the so-called War on Terror to increase power at the expense of the states.

The former Prime Minister, John Howard, aided by his close confidant and head of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Max Moore-Wilton, acquired and stored power in the Prime Minister’s department and office.

All major immigration, defence, foreign affairs, industrial relations, health and education decisions were made by Howard.

But it was in the area of “national security”, through the head of the Australian Federal Police (AFP), Mick Keelty, that Howard most undermined the Constitution. Asylum seekers from Muslim countries were portrayed as likely terrorists and therefore a threat to national security. This was used as justification for holding men, women and children in remote detention camps, sometimes for years, in contravention of federal and state laws and International Conventions to which Australia is a signatory.

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Although cleared of all charges by the legal system, Keelty insists that Dr Haneef is still the subject of ongoing investigation by the AFP. A face saving device for an organisation which transgressed the law but which believes it is above the law.

The AFP has shown little respect for state boundaries and jurisdictions, treating state police forces as adjuncts to the AFP, which we witnessed with the Haneef affair and the betrayal of the Bali Nine.

Keelty is keen to establish the AFP as an Australian FBI and he may get his way with a Rudd Government that has demonstrated an equal naivety on security and defence issues as the previous government, not helped by their apparent comfort in relying on the same inadequate advisers and advice.

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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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