States’ rights have been the bane of the Labor Party throughout its existence. Attempted change after attempted change made when in government in Canberra was thwarted by the constitutional preservation of powers to the states.

Well, that kind of federation is now dead with the High Court this week confirming that a gradual shift of political power to the centre will be permanent. No longer will socialist zeal be checked by a judicial concern for what state governments claim as rightfully theirs. And there can be no cries of outrage from the mainstream conservative parties either. Just as it was their Robert Menzies who began the decline of states’ rights in the 1950s and 1960s with his tied financial grants for universities and science laboratories, John Howard pushed through the extension of the corporations power to cover industrial relations law. Now it can be open slather.

Not that Mr Howard wants to admit it. He is happy enough with his victory on industrial law and “I have no desire for takeover’s sake to take over the role of the states”.

While he remains in office that might be so but experience shows that when governments can use a power they inevitably do use a power. Kim Beazley might not have the enthusiasm for change of a Gough Whitlam but there are plenty of his colleagues who do. When a future Labor Government finally comes, the movement of state governments towards being mere administrators and book keepers will progress apace.

In the meantime Kim Beazley will be happy enough to now have industrial relations confirmed as his key election issue. The trade union movement can forget about state governments helping their cause. Only a federal Labor Party can be of assistance.

Trade unions have always provided the bulk of federal election funding for Labor but for this coming election they might as well flirt with bankruptcy and donate every cent they can put their hands on. The return of a Howard Government will see further changes to industrial law that reduce trade unions to a worse state of irrelevance than state governments.

Yet victory for a Beazley Government beholden to trade union support will give the opportunity for the very same powers that are destroying their influence to be used to elevate them to an even greater significance than they had in the century of states’ rights.

Peter Fray

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