With his decision to press ahead with the federal takeover of water use in the Murray-Darling Basin, John Howard has confirmed that his lasting legacy will be as the Prime Minister who substantially strengthened Federal Government power at the expense of State Governments.
Mr Howard’s reputation as the country’s most federalist conservative Prime Minister was well established before yesterday’s announcement to ignore Victoria’s refusals to voluntarily hand over the powers his $10 billion scheme needed.
Under Howard, Australia has seen the destruction of state industrial relations systems, a growing use of tied grants to dictate policies in education and health, use of the GST to confirm the primacy of Canberra in all state fundraising (by abolishing a raft of state taxes), rejection of NT euthanasia laws and ACT proposals to give rights to same-s-x couples and a move to directly control Aboriginal welfare.
During Mr Howard’s 11 years in office, the move towards making State Governments mere administrative agents has accelerated at a pace Labor’s Gough Whitlam would only have dreamed of.
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No wonder then that the present Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd so often finds himself in policy agreement with his rival. For a century, Labor has been the party advocating centralisation and, whatever the eight Labor State and Territory Premiers and chief ministers might think about it, Mr Rudd and his Caucus colleagues in Canberra are looking forward to the opportunities created by Mr Howard’s successes before the High Court.
Whether the Commonwealth seizing control of the Murray-Darling by a combination of constitutional provisions relating to foreign affairs and corporations is ultimately sanctioned by the Court will be determined in the term of the next Government not this one.
There will be insufficient time between the passage of legislation and election day for an appeal to be heard. This suits Mr Howard politically. His motive in making the decision on water was clearly politically motivated — to present his Government as capable of taking decisive action at a time of severe drought and increasing public concern about the impact of global warming.
There will be many on the conservative side of politics who actually believe there is a virtue in splitting power between the Commonwealth and the States and who hope that the High Court eventually rebuffs the extension of power that Mr Howard is grabbing.
The winner of the Bragging Rights and our dozen wines from Glug this week is Mathew Stephenson who will take his place in our Psephology Hall of Fame along with previous winners. Because the second and third place getters were so close, consolation wine prizes will be sent to Monty Mandelburgh (a previous winner) and Stephen Luntz.