Queensland Premier Peter Beattie has called for a constitutional convention to examine a new model of federal government ahead of a premiers’ meeting in Melbourne on Friday. It’s a good idea that he’s approached in entirely the wrong way.

Beattie says the Howard Government has eroded states’ rights and the Senate has failed in its role as a states’ house.

“No government in the history of the federation has extended its reach into the domain of the states as significantly as the Howard-Costello government,” Beattie told parliament yesterday. “They are completely eroding the powers of the states.”

“This power grab has been compounded by the almost total failure of the Senate to discharge its charter as the state’s house. The structure and composition of the Senate, together with the influence of party politics in the election of senators, has meant that in the living memory of most Australians the Senate has operated without regard to the protection of state interests – its primary reason for being.”

Spot on. But then he suggests Australia follow the German model and send state ministers or premiers to sit in a federal upper house. And that’s just plain dumb. You can just see that seizing the national imagination at a referendum. It’s all a stunt.

But we need to look at federalism. And we need to be thinking referenda, too. Because the next wave of microeconomic reform depends on it. Skills have been this morning’s hot topic. They’re vital to prosperity. And they’re an issue that seems to have fallen between state and federal stools.

Governments love lecturing us on how we should embrace change – yet they’ve barely changed since Victoria’s reign.

Federalism is a 100 year old structure. It’s like a 100 year old house where the wiring hasn’t been redone, with a copper, not a Fisher & Paykel, in the laundry and an earth closet out the back.

The fabric’s sound – but, boy, could the place be made more liveable. More efficient. That’s our federation.

Peter Fray

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