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Howard's demolition job on federalism

By Peter Van Onselen and Wayne Errington - posted Tuesday, 7 June 2005

John Anderson's announcement that he wants control of the nation's ports has come as a surprise to the state premiers. The last time the Howard Government undertook a policy adventure on Australia's wharves, they managed to lose a PR battle against the country's least favourite trade union - the Maritime Union of Australia. Hopefully, unlike the wharfies, guard dogs and Dubai-trained mercenaries won't be necessary to get recalcitrant premiers in line.

The premiers shouldn't have been surprised by Anderson's gambit; it is perfectly consistent with the Howard Government's approach to federalism. The ALP party can't wait to get back into government and get its hands on all the levers of power that the Coalition has moved to Canberra. What happens then, Mr Howard? Federalism can certainly be a messy system of government. Democracy always is. The reason that approval of infrastructure proposals in our major cities takes time is because they disrupt people's homes and livelihoods.

Federalism allows decisions to be made closer to the level where people are affected by proposed changes. Shifting the regulation of ports to Canberra may well be efficient for our exporters, but they're already doing all right. More likely, however, is the further duplication of the type that the Government pretends to hate. The claim that Australia needs to centralise power to improve competitiveness is a spurious one. What better way to promote competition than to have states competing with each other within a strong federal system?


In fact, some of the wealthiest countries in the world operate within strong federal systems: The US, Switzerland and Canada to name a few. Federalism, and the more general principle of divided power, has always been a source of frustration for reformist national governments. Coalition governments have certainly centralised power in the past, but in a carefully considered fashion. Instead, the Howard Government has embraced the tedious practice of attempting to reform every institution within its grasp.

With the High Court providing little protection of state government powers, ambitious federal governments have always found ways to centralise power. Any uncertainty as to the centralising direction of Australian federalism vanished when the Commonwealth took over income-taxing powers from the states. Since then, the ability of the Federal Government to make conditional financial grants to the states has dramatically increased its power over traditional state responsibilities, such as health and education.

On this score, the Whitlam Government has been left in the dust by the present Government. Federal interference in literacy standards, water resources, roads, not to mention the really big issue of school flag-poles, all caused controversy over the Government's first three terms. But it appears they were only warming up. We can look forward to more of the same in industrial relations, technical colleges and school curricula.

If you have a problem with any of that, be careful what you say about it. Attorney- General Philip Ruddock wants a national defamation law too. Health minister Tony Abbott is an unabashed centraliser. He regularly criticises ''feral federalism'' - blame-shifting engaged in by state politicians on a range of issues, including health, roads and schools. Yet it is in Abbot's own portfolio that the Government has squibbed on a centralisation of power that many Australians would welcome - that of our hospitals. This would be a rare change of policy actually aimed at solving a problem. Hopefully, Mr Abbott will be able to give us a 100 per cent iron-clad guarantee he will soon look at centralising health.

However, instead of solving real problems, ministers tend to grab hold of policy ideas to promote themselves and distract us from difficult issues. Too bad if their bright ideas trample all over the principle of federalism. Anderson's announcement, hot on the heels of a Budget that offered no additional dollars for infrastructure, is just the latest example. The education portfolio has long housed the most egregious offenders, ambitious ministers offering up pointless centralisation, such as the latest proposal for a national leaving exam, often with the laughable label of deregulation attached.

The reason why state premiers have become, as Abbott puts it, ''Canberra's most exalted lobbyists'' is that the Feds raise the bulk of our taxes. The Government likes to pretend that the GST is a state tax in order to avoid the well-deserved label of our highest-ever taxers. Peter Costello's recent arm-twisting of the premiers over the removal of state taxes in return for GST revenue is a reminder that the latter is unambiguously a federal tax. The solution to the fiscal imbalance is not more tax, but less government, particularly less national government.


John Howard claims to be a nationalist rather than a federalist. Yet, scepticism of authority is one of the defining features of the Australian nation. The combination of the Howard Government's longevity and the reformist temper of the times will ensure that it becomes the most centralising government since World War II. The most surprising thing about this record is that it has provoked almost no opposition from within the Liberal party, the supposed guardian of federalism. The meekness of internal party opposition to the prime minister is well known. A bigger problem is that we also currently have the weakest crop of state Liberal leaders in decades. None of them look like surpassing the Labor incumbents. By the time they get their act together and win an election, the Howard Government will have rendered the job of state premier the equivalent of local councillor.

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First published by The Canberra Times on May 26, 2005.

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About the Authors

Dr Peter van Onselen is Associate Professor of Politics and Government School of Communications and Arts at Edith Cowan University in Perth, Western Australia.

Dr Wayne Errington lectures in politics at the Australian National University. His book, co authored with Peter Van Onselen, John Winston Howard: The Biography (Melbourne University Press), is due for release later this year.

Other articles by these Authors

All articles by Peter Van Onselen
All articles by Wayne Errington

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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