The announcement by Mr Howard that more federal intervention is on the way presents the federal-state crisis Australia had to have.

Staunch federalists, opposed to an increase in national powers for nearly 100 years, the conservatives current precarious electoral position has resulted in the PM’s grotesque political opportunism so that virtually nothing of the federal system is safe anymore.

After industrial relations, education, hospitals, and involvement in Queensland local government amalgamations, Howard now wants to take control over ports.

He is prepared to throw federal taxpayer money at any state problem, especially in marginal seats. The chickens are coming to roost.

Australians voters are now told that “we should be focused on outcomes, not systems”, appropriate or not. The cause of the problems is that the system has long not been appropriate. In Peter Costello’s words, “current federal-state arrangement are often in a mess”.

The list is far longer though: bushfire control, liquor licences, taxation, electricity and power, law, control over airports, national security, decentralisation, justice, water reform, grants commission transport, and the national data bank. Over all these issues federal-state disputes have raged in the last two years.

All of this is very much part of economic management of course, presumably the Coalition’s forte. The enormous waste of federal-state relations, not to mention the excess of politicians and civil servants, has often been commented on yet, only recently has the Coalition woken up to this costly reality as well.

The solution is a different, effective system of governance, appropriate for the times, that means a two-tier system. We need to strengthen national government as well as, in my view, local government. This requires a major constitutional restructure.

There may well be a significant role for voluntary regional councils, as adjuncts to local government, a kind of mezzanine level, and city governments as part of a more comprehensive local government role.

We need to abolish the states, where government power is really centralised, and link all local governments directly to the national government. Given the massive improvement in communications and transport since 1901, but especially since WWII, this structural change surely is long overdue.

The archaic constitution has not kept pace with the changes. The reason for that is the two party system, and the reason for that is Australia’s dominant single-member district electoral system. Can we start debating these causes and effects?

That is not what the ALP is now talking about though. Not at all. Their defensive counter, amazingly, is to “improve federalism”, a stronger COAG role, not drastic surgery. Grasp the nettle Mr. Rudd. You won’t frighten the horses by bold initiatives of this kind. There is strong popular support for this kind of reform.

Federation is the past, open the debate on the future. The people want transparency, simplicity, clear accountability, meaningful decentralisation, more funding for local government and a stop to the endless blame shifting that is part of the increasingly useless two party tyranny.

If the ALP is elected federally there is an exceptional opportunity to restructure Australia. That is where the ALP wants to move the public debate. Thus far there is no sign of it.

Peter Fray

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