It’s something of a platitude that the Howard government is the most
centralist government in Australia’s history, extending federal power
into new and untried areas at the expense of the states (industrial
relations, VSU, technical education). This has been partly a result of
Howard’s own beliefs, and partly due to the circumstance that the
states are all controlled by Labor governments.

One might have hoped that the silver lining to this centralist cloud
would be that Labor, being so strong in the states, would rediscover
some of the virtues of federalism. But there’s little chance of that,
if Kim Beazley’s pronouncement today on education reform is any guide.
As The Australian reports:

Kim Beazley will today announce sweeping education reforms
to force Labor states into offering parents greater choice of public
schools.

Choice will be the centrepiece of the radical rethink of the ALP’s
education policies, with Mr Beazley warning the premiers they must
embrace reform or risk funding cuts.

Now I think choice in education is a fine idea. But what is the point
in having states if those decisions are all going to be made in
Canberra? Surely one of the main advantages of a federal system is that
different ideas and methods in a field like education can be tried out
in different jurisdictions, so policy-makers can see what works and
what doesn’t.

But Howard’s centralism has also exposed why federalism is in such a
sad state. When it comes to the crunch, the state premiers always roll
over and do what Canberra says. None of them wants to give up federal
funding and take responsibility for their own policies.

If Labor premiers won’t stand up to John Howard, how likely is it that
they’d stand up to a Beazley government, should one ever eventuate?

Peter Fray

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