Friday’s COAG meeting in Canberra was portrayed as a great, cooperative love-in. But in reality, it was a major missed opportunity. If the idea was to only talk about things in which cooperation between the states and Canberra was possible, it was telling that our political leaders ran out of things to discuss after just two hours.

It was almost as if Friday’s meeting was one of those jovial photo opportunities at the weigh-in before a boxing match. The protaganists were all smiles ahead of the frenzied fight which lies ahead as the PM pursues his centralist agenda.

The early finish gave the various premiers time to do interviews with their local ABC Stateline programs, although WA, NSW and South Australia are yet to update their websites, perhaps reflecting the budgets strains at Aunty. Check out the performances by Steve Bracks and Peter Beattie and you can read the full transcript of Friday’s love-in press conference with the PM here.

This was the last COAG meeting before the greatest centralisation push out of Canberra since Gough Whitlam’s day, as the PM flagged in his “Reflections on Australian Federalism” speech in Melbourne on 11 April. These lines from The Australian’s Mike Steketee summarise what is happening:

Greg Craven’s concern extends far beyond industrial relations. Of Education Minister Brendan Nelson’s proposals for the commonwealth to take over state administration of universities, he says: “How comfortable are we with the idea of a single Australian government having control of every Australian university, and what implication does that have for freedom of speech and universities as critical components of freedom of speech?”

The Government’s centralist bent is now unmistakeable. Health Minister Tony Abbott periodically floats the idea of the commonwealth taking over hospitals – a position long advocated by Whitlam. It has not happened because the commonwealth lacks the constitutional power and the states have never all agreed to relinquish responsibility. But the Government has one alternative up its sleeve: giving its share of funding directly to public hospitals, rather than through the states.

It already has gone down this course in education, with Howard’s promise during the election campaign to bypass the states to fund 24 new technical colleges and to channel extra commonwealth funding for government schools through principals and P&C associations. It also provides funding for local roads directly to local government.

And this is what John Howard said on 24 March, this year:

If we were starting Australia all over again, I wouldn’t support having the existing state structure,” he said. “I would actually support having a national government, and perhaps a series of regional governments having the power of, say, the Brisbane City Council (Australia’s most powerful local government). But we’re not starting Australia all over again, and the idea of abolishing state governments is unrealistic.

Friday’s peace pipe smoking effort will go down as one of the great smokescreens of our time.