Look back over Australian political history since the end of the Ming dynasty and ask yourself: when did we last have decent premiers? It was probably in the seventies, in the days of Wran, Bolte, Dunstan, Bjelke-Petersen and Court. Who have had since then? The odd bright spark. Greiner. Kennett. Carr. And… Paul Lennon? He looks like a standard issue union schooner pig.
Faced with that lot, it’s no wonder the Howard Government is finding it so easy to centralise.
But does federalism matter? The states, after all, are vaguely embarrassing. Different railway gauges 100 years ago and academic and trade qualifications they don’t all recognise today.
Which is the starting point for an article by Curtin University Professor of Government and Law, Greg Craven, published in Policy magazine today. Craven accuses the Howard Government of launching the strongest attack on federalism since the Whitlam era. He claims the Australian states are genuinely different, that there are “widely varying conditions of climate, geography, society and economy.”
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Craven argues that the existence of states give citizens a greater opportunity for having their views heard and their concerns acted on. He asks what Canberra knows about “educating young Aboriginal men in the Pilbara… the peculiarities of the Brisbane sewerage system, and the plight of urban platypus in Melbourne?”
More interestingly, with 1 July looming, he writes about how federalism is closely related to the separation of powers, preventing total domination of Australia by any one government: “Dictatorship is not possible in a country where no government can simultaneously determine parking fines in Hobart and the price of dingos in Darwin.”
Craven claims that “to profess oneself a ‘centralist’, even to propose the abolition of the states altogether, is merely to demonstrate intellectual breeding… The reality, however, is that the debate is nowhere near as one-sided as enthusiasts for unlimited central power might like to think. The customary starting point for anti-federalists is to deny the key argument for the continued existence of the states: that they are seriously different…
“The starting point here is to understand that the standard attack on Australian federalism, like unsolicited brochures from real estate agents, is not entirely selfless. Its authors do not propose the annihilation of the states so that Australians might frolic free from government interference: rather, as the states are hustled from the stage, the Commonwealth will make its modest entrance as arbiter of all things. Soaring condemnations of the inefficiency, incompetence and irrelevance of the states need to be heard as corresponding pleas to the Australian people to submit themselves to the tender joys of unbridled national government. As the sign in government offices would read: ‘Trust me, I’m the Commonwealth’.”
How’s that for a starting point for a new debate on federalism?