Australian politics may have just witnessed one of the great role reversals of all time.
Yesterday I considered whether the centralism of the Howard government might drive its opponents towards support of federalism, but said that “So far, however, there are no signs of that from Kevin Rudd’s ALP.”
But Peter Costello is convinced. Yesterday he launched into Kevin Rudd for being a supporter of federalism: “whenever State Labor Governments make a demand on Mr Rudd, he bends over backwards to accommodate …”.
Now, stop and think what a remarkable development this is. For a hundred years, Labor has been attacked for its centralism: for trying to concentrate power in the federal government at the expense of the states.
Of course, non-Labor federal governments increased central power as well, but they did so while paying lip service to federal principles.
The exception was prime minister John Gorton in the late 1960s, but he was fighting against non-Labor state premiers, and the federal ALP supported him in his centralism (and extended it when they got into power).
Later, both the Fraser and Hawke governments made some moves towards recasting the federal system to give more responsibility to the states, moves that were scuttled by the advent of centralist Paul Keating – for which he was criticised from opposition by the Coalition.
So the spectacle of a Coalition government in Canberra attacking Labor for giving too much ground to the states is a complete reversal of form.
It shows how comfortable the government has become with its centralism.
Costello’s specific target, of course, was the prospect of a GST increase if Labor is in power federally as well as in the states. But it’s not at all clear that bringing the GST back to public attention is a wise electoral tactic from the government’s point of view.
While the premiers’ report, Australia’s Federal Future (now available online), does suggest increasing taxes on consumption, it does so in the context of proposed reforms that would free the states from Canberra’s financial control. But neither Rudd nor Costello shows much enthusiasm for that idea.
When the GST was first introduced, the government claimed it would give the states financial independence. Now it seems to be claiming the fact that it doesn’t as a virtue.