Howard the centralist

One aspect of the govenment’s spending spree that has attracted relatively little attention is its implications for Federal-State relations. In important respects, these policies are more centralist than anything seen since the Whitlam era. Throughout the health and education sectors in particular, Howard is seeking to get involved in policy areas that have previously been left to the state, and to do so with direct day-to-day control.

But whereas Whitlam was a consistent centralist, these policies are a logical mess. The general line is that the states should be kept on a tight financial leash, but not relieved of any of their basic responsibilities for schools, hospitals, the TAFE sector and so on. Meanwhile, the Commonwealth will provide lavishly funded frills for schools with a “made in Canberra” label, operate a parallel line of Rolls-Royce TAFEs and pick and choose priorities in the health sector.

As I’ve argued before, it would be a good thing for the Commonwealth to take over hospitals, and probably also the TAFE sector. But that means accepting full responsibility for the sector, not throwing a few billion at whatever came up last in the focus groups, while expecting the states to do all the thankless basics. And it should be matched with a complete withdrawal from other areas (school education and highways are obvious candidates).

10 thoughts on “Howard the centralist

  1. Must be something in the air of Queensland. You’re right but I worry you’ll do a Joh and start talking about the socialist-centralist Howard government. The Howard push for centralising everything in Canberra, I mean Kirribilli, runs beyond our borders and into the Pacific.

    Howard’s used tied aid, imposed an Australian secretary-general of the South Pacific Forum, imposed an Australian as Nauru’s finance secretary, interfered in the PACER/PICTA trade arrangements, etc etc.

  2. John,
    it is not clear to me why the Commonwealth should take over TAFE, as opposed to channelling more money into the beleagured vocational system on the condition that the states lift their game.

    Do I infer that you too are a centralist?

    If so on what grounds re TAFE? I could not find any postings in the archives that makes the case.

  3. My view is that we need to be aiming at near-universal post-secondary education, and adopting a consistent approach to this, relying on HECS rather than fees.

    Although I’m not firm on this, I’m inclined to think this will only work if the Commonwealth funds both TAFE and unis.

    Getting the Commonwealth out of the schools business would more than offset this, so, no I’m not a centralist.

  4. John, As I have said before on a similar posting there must be some theory to explain what’s going on in this debate over centralism. The ability of more localised groups to take advantage of local information and perhaps to promote interstate ‘social experimentation’ (sounds dreadful) versus the efficiencies from centralising things and prioritizing across the nation. The theory should be analogous to the transaction cost arguments for the existence of firms based on the advantages of hierarchy as opposed to markets.

    But nothing clear or convincing occurs to me. Your suggestions though reasonable still seem a bit ad hoc.

  5. Harry,
    would not ‘some theory’ have more to do with the tensions with federalism? Or the way that federalism counterbalances, and plays off, political power amongst the different political entities?

    Your suggestion reduces the political to the operations and dynamics of markets.

  6. Garry that certainly wasn’t my intention. I was thinking about the way information gets transmitted and utilised. In some ways good communications permit greater political fragmentation just as international trade is becoming more fragmented. Note I used the word ‘analogous’.

    But your general criticism has validity, I was looking at the thing in terms of efficiency rather than political tradeoffs and the latter is obviously important. John’s initial question seemed to me to be concerned with how things should be structured.

    I was really grappling for a way of thinking about these things and didn’t really claim much.

  7. Before thelast election it looked unsound to have all Labor states and a Labor Federal government and that a Coalition Federal government would act as a brake on the States.

    Well it is true that the Feds have acted as a brake – but not quite what I envisaged. In fact the Labor States have acted responsibly in most cases whilst the Coalition Federal government has just used the situation to bolster its own position and to use any opportunity to shift blame to the states whilst undermining agreements with them.

    The ideas presented through the election show that there is a tawdry industrial relations policy that it cannot force on the general workforce because it does not help standards through the parallel system to Tafe envisaged in the Howard policy. How expensive would it be to set up the parallel system before one new apprentice is trained? It is the Liberal fiddling with the apprenticeship and wage system that has resulted in the current skill shortage. When a trainee can be trained on the job for a small wage to tune a car – why give the full range of skills required to create a mechanic? The young person finishes the traineeship and is replaced with another low cost trainee and the first drifts away as the job skills are of low interest as there is no depth or challenge in the future. this was a change introduced under Amanda Vanstone and continued under Brendan Nelson.

    The problem with all the centralised solutions that the Howard government offers is that they are unnecessarily complex, rely on a great deal of ideology and do not actually address the issues.

    Looking at the additional funding offered to schools it will require parents to present requests to the Government – it will be the schools with a better educated pool of parents that will benefit most as they will have the skills to develop and present their requests. There will be opportunities for parents to get the funding and spend it on something else and then have to face the please explains from the Feds.

    We would be far better having a Labor Federal government that can work with the states than the current dysfunctional system.

  8. Harry,
    I was far too quick in pushing your concern about the way information gets transmitted and utilised into the background.

    Various ngo’s in civil society –eg green or community ones —do have have a lot of information and knowledge about what is going one. Many of them are taking the old idea of subsidiarity to heart,and are slowly transforming themselves into knowledge brokers.They are startinf to fil the gaps left by the decline of the bureaucracy from its ongoing politicization.

    So your phrase:

    “The ability of more localised groups to take advantage of local information and perhaps to promote interstate ‘social experimentation’ (sounds dreadful) versus the efficiencies from centralising things and prioritizing across the nation.”

    is very apt and extremely important.It needs to be foregrounded.

    Community groups that once saw their role as feeding the battered and hungry bodies of unemployed youth are now moving into helping to train them to acquire skills.

    They succeed in this because they have a local knolwedge of what the kids need. They also understand things from being dismissed at scchool, because they do not want to go to uni and are seen as dumb and stupid, and so they only for the dirty trades, which they do not want to do.

    They want computer skills that are relevant to their own lived life.

  9. federalism=centralism?
    Today’s editorial in the Australian Financial Review (subscription required) is about federalism: Howard’s new federalism. It suggests that Howard has

  10. Latho’s launch
    Murdoch boosts the god botherers, as Latho’s big day arrives. A surprising lack of pre-launch press around the place. Aren’t you supposed to leak stuff in advance to get double coverage? More new politics? I’m hoping for (1) the medicare…

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