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Howard channels Whitlam

May 20th, 2004

John Howard is a well-known admirer of Gough Whitlam,so it’s not surprising to see him returning to one of Gough’s favourite centralist themes

Mr Howard said this week that the federal system was being undermined by bickering between the states and Canberra.

He was angered by repeated claims by the states that they were being underfunded when they were receiving more money courtesy of the goods and services tax.

“I don’t think our present system, federal system, is working all that well,” he said.

“I think if we were starting a country all over again we’d have a national government and a whole series of regional governments – we wouldn’t have states if we were starting all over again; but we’re not, so that’s quite academic.”

Unfortunately, Gough and John are both wrong on this one. If we started completely from scratch, we might have some different state boundaries, or perhaps an extra state in North Queensland, but with these modest qualifications, the Australian states are natural political units. I’ll try and do a longer post on this.

That said, I’m glad to see that the government is once again floating the idea that the Commonwealth should take over the entire health system. If, in return, the Feds got out of the school sector, we’d have a much more manageable division of responsibilities. buy zyvox

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  1. May 20th, 2004 at 09:31 | #1

    The sure sign that the job is getting to them is when they start railing against the states. Of course, such remarks were commonplace in the 1890s as well, but there was no way that the likes of South Australia,Tasmania or West Australia wished to be swallowed up by a unitary state.

    No doubt there is some economic inefficiencies involved- you’d know that better then I would, but on the whole it has made Australia’s political system a lot stronger then it would otherwise be.

  2. harry clarke
    May 20th, 2004 at 10:58 | #2

    John, Why centralised health but decentralised education and why the decentralisation at state rather than local level? Local prefs more important for education and scale economies in admin for health? I can see a host of agency, expertise and game theory & pork-barrelling issues but, determining the appropriate extent of decentralisation in governance is complex. The rationale for your strong views eagerly awaited.

  3. John Quiggin
    May 20th, 2004 at 12:05 | #3

    More soon on this, I hope, Harry, but the short answer is that Medicare wouldn’t work at all well on a state-by-state basis. I think this would be true for single-payer schemes in general, starting with a clean slate, and it’s certainly true given our starting point.

    By contrast, the Commonwealth role in schools is essentially one of putting in some money and making mischief of various kinds. Since I favour decentralisation where its possible, I’d like them to leave the field.

    Turning to some other items I think that TAFE and Uni funding should be integrated and I can’t see a good alternative to doing this nationally. OTOH, I think roads and rail should be left to the states (of course this is moot to the extent that services like this are privatised).

  4. May 20th, 2004 at 12:43 | #4

    The states are indeed natural units, based on nature, which was important in the 19th C world in which they were drawn up. But we have the internet now, so there is no need for 7 different sets of state-type governments to duplicate and complicate things.
    The main argument for abolishing the states role as distributors of community services is cost savings. Mark Drummond estimates that the savings could be as much as $30 bill pa, something like 3% of national income, recurring forever.
    One centralised bureuacracy could do the national administration job at half the cost, based on an admin formula for distibution to regional governments, who are the logical local consumers.
    In fact, this is how Centre Link works, doling out funds to local offices and charities. No states getting in the way. Whats wrong with that set-up? One does not see complaints, akin to the ones about hospital waiting lists or temporary shool rooms, in regard to welfare spending.
    If Pr Q were consistent, he would argue that State governments should take over DSS and CentreLink functions. That is the reductio ad absurdum of federalism.

  5. May 20th, 2004 at 12:50 | #5

    Doesn’t the prospect of a completely centralised government cause some worry? That’s a lot of power without checks and balances in the hands of a few.

    Perhaps we can trust Howard & Latham with that power but what about future politicians?

  6. May 20th, 2004 at 13:20 | #6

    The Centrelink comparison is provocatively interesting. I wouldn’t argue that it works any better than the local schools or hospitals. Unless you think one national monster is a better idea than a heap of local ones.

    The experience of Centrelink in our family is that the agency’s staff is civil but the admin. is erratic and sometimes brutal and the political intentions draconian.

    (and I do think Centrelink should be national)

  7. May 20th, 2004 at 13:26 | #7

    I actually looked into this a while ago for my own curiosity, but unfortunately my materials are buried in boxes now.

    As I recall, the conclusion I came to was that there were 20-odd natuarl units that could form the basic components, though possibly some would be unviable on their own but workable if aggregated (or if assisted through a suitable federal scheme – it wouldn’t work if all units were clients).

    After removing major cities and hinterlands, the components roughly followed South Australia, Victoria broken in three (east, west and trans-divide), NSW broken into Riverina, interior, and several coastal chunks, QLD broken into far north, one or two coastal chunks to Brisbane, and a few more coastal chunks with another interior. Possibly northern SA and southern NT could work as a central zone (i.e. the parts that don’t provide natural feeders for local transport routes – long haul routes don’t drive this). A similar pattern develops in WA, but with fewer natural divisions between coast and interior: more coastal chunks further south, getting wider and fewer further north.

    It’s a feedback between communications and people’s connections with the regions. One idea is “where do you go for major purchases?”, and it changes with transport technology, despite a natural tendency for network externalities to perpetuate existing patterns. Have a look at how many individual coast-to-interior small railway lines there are, that don’t connect up. These suggest some of the coast-to-interior chunks.

    One other thing. Strategy dictates that capitals retreat inland after major wars. In North America this drove state capitals inland after the incursions of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Australia has yet to experience this, but one day Sydney will be left behind by history like Rye in England or some of the New England towns.

  8. Homer Paxton
    May 20th, 2004 at 15:24 | #8

    You forgot to add he likes to spend large amounts of government money on wasteful projects like Whitlam did too.

  9. Richard
    May 20th, 2004 at 23:35 | #9

    Working in the health system in the West: most of use agree that there is massive duplication. However, a federal takeover would be resisted since Canberra are very rare to send over pro-consuls even when it comes to consulation/implement with national programmes. Our view is that WA is essentially not on the radar in Canberra – certainly not in comparison with, for example, the western suburbs of Sydney. Nice idea, but impractical.

  10. kyan gadac
    May 21st, 2004 at 01:51 | #10

    Jach Strocchi says that the states are “natural units” but this is a peculiarly maritime and historical naturalism. After all NSW was originally all of Terra Australis until it got gradualy whittled down; and, each state is based around the major ports that were historically developed. Abolishing the states would have the unfortunate affect of not just centralizing power in Canberra but of centralizing power in the major capital cities. If local/regional government becomes the natural unit below the federal government then you can bet that Melbourne, Sydney etc will follow Brisbane and maximise their size much to the detriment of the smaller regional governments elsewhere.

    PML reckons that Sydney might retreat inland after a war – you gotta reckon there’s always a risk of bloody escalation from the rugby or cricket field against the kiwis, but failing that, Sydney as Rye!LOL (although, upon reflection the iea that Sydney’s growth might peak – a breakdown in the water supply for instance – is perfectly reasonable, but Rye!)

    The best bet, although it’s the least likely to be implemented, is for us to work with the indigenous community and define the areas of local government in concert with indigneous boundaries. These have at the very least stood the test of time and this would give us approxiamately 100-200 local government areas which would make up a reformed Senate and be an effective counterweight against the power that would accrue to the larger cities.

    But I can’t see our current racist blinkers being taken off long enough to take such a suggestion seriously.

  11. May 21st, 2004 at 11:55 | #11

    The states might be historical units but calling them natural units is weird.

    The only examples of natural features serving as borders are the Murray, Bass Strait and the Lamington watershed. The rest are dead straight surveyor’s lines proclaimed mostly in London as part of the nineteenth century’s obsession with imposing rational order on the map. Even the Murray is a bit dubious. Natural borders include the whole of a basin istead of dividing at the river. The exceptions are all cases where the river serves as a convenient dividing line between remote governments.

    The worst impact is six competing governments trying to administer the Murray-Darling Basin. For all that, the federation is here to stay and a unitary government would certianly not work any better.

    North Queensland and New England perhaps have a case, but they’re about the only examples. New England actually voted for statehood in 1967 but NSW had thoughtfully included the whole of the Hunter Valley in the proposed state so the referendum was lost. Neither the Hunter nor New England had ever wanted the Hunter to be part of the new state.

  12. May 22nd, 2004 at 14:31 | #12

    “PML reckons that Sydney might retreat inland after a war…”

    No, rather I reckon that strategic and economic issues could well drive it below self sustaining levels, while those roles get taken up elsewhere (probably inland). That’s been the historical pattern elsewhere. The fate of Rye is what awaits things that go below self sustaining levels. You might want to think of what happened to Port Fairy in Victoria; it never quite got started, partly because of early trade failures at a critical moment which allowed other ports to get ahead. There are interestin parallels with what stopped Newport, Rhode Island from getting properly started in its early days.

  13. Joe
    May 24th, 2004 at 22:24 | #13

    How do you get to there (no States) from here? It seems to me that you would have to elect administrations on the platform that they can run their states/territories better than the other parties, until that happy day when there are 8 administrations who agree that the Feds could do it even better and that they didn’t enjoy being in power anyway. Not going to happen.

  14. May 25th, 2004 at 12:11 | #14

    Joe – either you start running a parallel system that eventually deprives the states of all meaning (expensive, but what happened under Rome), or you wait for some disaster and take advantage of the need for rebuilding to make changes at the same time. Both work, but neither has much to recommend it.

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