Howard channels Whitlam, part 2

The increasingly centralist tendencies of the Howard government have been obvious for a while. Howard’s latest statement that Australia would be better off without state governments is only a bit stronger than what he said last year. As I pointed out at the time, both Whitlam and Howard are wrong on this, and the whole idea of regional governments won’t stand up to even cursory scrutiny.

What makes the statements more significant now is the fact that Howard has control of the Senate and can therefore repudiate the GST deal had, more generally, do whatever he likes. It will be interesting to see whether professed defenders of federalism, like the National Party, stand up to him on this.

27 thoughts on “Howard channels Whitlam, part 2

  1. A bipartisan push for the protection of civil liberties and the control of government power at all levels would be most welcome. This could lead to some situations and decisions that we don’t personally like (a la the decisions of umpires and referees in sports) but we go along for the sake of the game, in this case for the sake of a more free society. I imagine we could have some animated discussion about this and no doubt in due course we will.

  2. the whole idea of regional governments won’t stand up to even cursory scrutiny.

    Isn’t it time to for Pr Q to make good on his threat to give regional governments his critical scrutiny? My dad, Northern Italian, always thought the idea had some merit, given AUS’s small population. AUS is essentially an archipelago of a handful of medium sized cities. Do we need a middle tier of government to manage rural and regional affairs?

  3. Johnee and Cozzee kapt on telling me that the ONLY way for the GST to change was for both houses of Parliament and ALL state and territory to agree to it.
    Are you saying they were wrong JQ?

  4. I can’t see how the idea of the current states holds up to scrutiny any more than regional governments.

    Borderlines based on old colonies, that cover large areas with little in common? I can’t see why that is good.

  5. The sad thing is, of the two major factions and the two larger third parties – none are in favour of federalism. All have the idea of making the Commonwealth the over-riding body of government in Australia and reducing any impediment to Commonwealth power by creating smaller regional councils. The Greens and Democrats before the elections had those as stated policies on their websites. Both parties have since removed it.

    We effectively have every politically powerful party in the Commonwealth wanting a UK style of system where all power, money and authority is in Canberra.

    We need a party that supports federalism. Otherwise we are going to end up with one big fat honking government in Canberra making bad decisions for everybody without any barrier or impediment on their ability to do so.

    The point of a Federal Government was that it would only handle the issues that made sense at the nation-state level. Things like trade, defence etc. Instead the last century has seen the creation of a behemoth that taxes for the states; that covets the states constitutional responsibilities; interferes with state policies; and has a stated claim of removing the states as political entities.

    The entropy and collapse of power to Canberra is disgusting. It needs to stop. There needs to be a reminder to the Commonwealth Government that we were founded as a Federation.

  6. Homer

    Under the current inter-governmental agreement the only way that the GST can be changed is by the Commonwealth and States agreeing to the change. However, if the Commonwealth thought the States and Territories had broken the agreement then, given it will have a majority in both houses, it could simply “take back” the GST through legislation and revert to something akin to the old Financial Assistance Grants system to hand money to the States. That is why there is a big argument over whether the agreement has been met.

    Nothing in politics is irreversible!

  7. As Mark says, there’s a Federal Act of Parliament that says the GST rate can only be altered with the agreement of all the states. But like all Federal legislation, it can be repealed or amended at any time by a simple majority in both Houses.

  8. I’d like an explanation of this regional government concept and why it wont stand up to scrutiny too, please.

  9. It’s an “if I were you I wouldn’t start from here” thing. Regional governments are good, implemented as cantons with comparative homogeneity rather than the way electorates are designed to be heterogenous. Only, that’s not as an extra layer after states; it’s instead of, being the new states.

    The catch is that they aren’t in place, and there would be disruption making change and waste simply adding them. I have somewhere a market research derived map showing some twenty naturally coherent areas of Australia, most of which are slices heading inland from the coast on the way rond from Adelaide to about half way up Queensland. Such a thing may come about one day, if it ever becomes necessary to rebuild after something breaks what is there now at state level.

    Myself, I much prefer a semi-federal design, in which states are very democratic (even using term limits for representatives), the senate is Canadian style with long termers but elected at large (so not state-oriented any more), and the role of the federal lower house is taken by ex officio committees from state level lower houses meeting in a special capacity. Again, you can’t get there from here unless rebuilding after a wholesale breakage (which is not a justification for a republican-style “let’s break it so they have to change”).

    It’s an attempt to minimise limitations from things like Arrow’s theorem, the way using different sets of maps in navigation minimises difficulties with any one projection.

  10. I’ll add my voice to the call JQ – please give us the readout on regional governments and why they’re a bad idea. I also agree with Rafe – lets get some more bipartisanship going about protecting our liberties.

  11. Before we get too excited about abolishing the states, perhaps a discourse on the constitutional difficulties in so doing would be in order.

    The immediate counter from the states would be to seceed from the commonwealth, leaving the feds in control of the borders of parliament house only with no money at all. Given Canberra’s historical power grabs, I think our founding fathers would approve given the debates in the late 19th century on federation.

  12. I’m still very much of the view that it would be theoretically desirable to get rid of, or significantly change the number, boundaries and role of the states. However, I can’t see the remostest chance of it ever happening, so its all a bit academic.

    I must say that over time I have become more accepting of the value that differing state approaches can bring and more concerned with some of the problems of instinctive centralism, which federalism is meant to prevent.

    Cameron is right, the Democrats have been strongly centralist in approach for many years and have often pushed the benefits of replacing the states with stronger regional/local government (whilst still acknowledging it will never happen). In an example of ‘balancing differing principles’, the party also strongly supports greater local particpation and control. It may sound contradictory, although I think if the right sorts of protections are in place nationally (which they very much are not at the moment), it could work.
    The major parties are also both strongly centralist these days (when they are in government anyway). It is interesting that despite the similarity with the USA of being a federation, that principle doesn’t seem to have anything like the same power behind it here as it does there (although the Terri Schiavo case shows how states rights can be applied ‘flexibly’ too when it suits, but that’s a whole topic of its own)

  13. PrQ,
    Howard has always been a centralist – I remember a group of us having a chat with him in the late 80’s when he was a ditched, failed, leader and even with a WA audience he stated the same thing – he has made no secret of the fact for a long time. I disagreed with him then and I still do.
    On the GST deal, I doubt he can repudiate it, politically at least. It would (rightly) be seen as a huge failure for him if it happened. In addition, this would mean that the States could then re-introduce all those silly little taxes they withdrew and could (again, rightly) point the finger at Canberra.
    To me, this is all a little piece of political gamesmanship of the sort that PMs have played from time immemorial to try to get a desired outcome from hostile States, nothing more. What is pernicious is the continued eroding of the power of the States implicit in losing the power of the purse strings. I think they should fire back that the national emergency that brought in the full weight of the Income Tax Assessment Act (World War II) has now passed and they want that power back, please.

  14. I suppose this thread is about federalism and public administration rather than human rights and civil liberties at large, but before it slips my mind for another decade I would like to know what happened to the Senate Committee on conscientious objection to military service. People approaching their dotage will recall that the Vietnam debate turned up two serious deficiences in the legislation, objectors had to have a religious ground, and they had to object to all wars. I have an idea that the Committee came up with some vaguely sensible suggestions and nothing happened.

  15. Rafe
    It probably is off-topic, although I guess I could make some point about military service being one thing we defintiely would not want to devolve to the states.

    If you go to this research note from the Parliamentary Library at, it’ll give you a quick overview.

    The relevant bit specific to your question states:
    The Committee’s report “Conscientious Objection to Conscripted Military Service” recommended that a framework for Conscientious Objection be incorporated into a National Service Bill. In addition, it recommended the recognition of specific conscientious belief ‘so as to grant exemption from participation in a particular military conflict where to be compelled by law to do so would violate the individual’s sense of personal integrity’.

    The Gulf War in 1990 brought these issues sharply into focus, and the recommendations of the Committee were incorporated into the Defence Legislation Amendment Act 1992. The essential changes included the recognition of conscientious objection to particular conflicts and the requirement that prior parliamentary approval of conscription be obtained.

  16. Peter Kemp, in order for the states to seceed, wouldn’t that require some sort of constitutional change? Didn’t WA already try early on last century or something?

    Alternatively—Even if the every single person in WA (or wherever) decided that staying a member of the federation was not in their best interest, wouldn’t it come down to “Them and what army”?

  17. Tristan, WA tried to go back to being a colony in 1933. The referendum passed with a 2 to 1 majority. But the petition was ignored by the Commonwealth Government and UK Parliament. WA didnt press beyond that.

    The Lang vs Lyons face off in 1932 was different. Both the Commonwealth and NSW had active and supporting militia. The Commonwealth put the military bases on notice and moved the Lighthorse to protect/defend Canberra. Lang also got the support of the NSW police.

    The NSW police because of the depression riots had rifles, ammunition, steel hats etc (ironically given to them by Canberra). They also had a state wide communications network which surrounded Canberra.

    The NSW military force, through the NSW Police and militia, potentially rivaled the Commonwealth for power. If Lang had decided Game had no authority to sack him, there probably would have been civil war.

  18. Tristan M; If a large majority in a state wanted to secede and voted in a State referendum, there would be nothing much the federalistas could do except start a civil war. Think Yugoslavia where the federated states became independent, even miniscule Slovenia.

    The constitution could be revoked by the states, my point was that for them to do it in unison would ram home the validity of such an action, apart from the glee at seeing certain pollies unemployed !

  19. Peter,

    I’m not sure that you are correct when you say “The constitution could be revoked by the states” at least not in legal terms.

    Both the States and the Commonwealth were created by Acts of British Parliament. The states have no legal power to secede or to abolish the Commonwealth.

  20. Cameron, WA wasn’t trying to “go back to being a colony” but rather to have separate independence, the way New Zealand got when it passed up on federation. The reversion to colony stuff did actually happen in Newfoundland, in the face of economic pressures in the Depression, but WA didn’t have the necessity to be dependent on someone.

    IG, if the republicans succeed with their ring barking, which includes things like “oh, the preamble is merely historical description with no practical effect”, then of course that also gives force to secession. Since without the preamble there is no bar to secession, and it is not explicitly a central function, that means that the secession decision is purely a state matter – which is all it needs.

  21. Two points,
    If Howard and Costello were ever mad enough to rewrite the GSL legislation then I would be willing to predict a labor lanslide.
    I can just see bomber saying how much they will put up the GST rate which of course they could if they wanted to IF they changed the legislation.

    You cannot abolish States as has been pointed out.
    If you think it is bad now what if you had the government battling it out with umpteen regional governments who would be even more populist then any of the States.

  22. P.M. Lawrence: I don’t think any constitutional case ever depended on the preamble, but I stand to be corrected. Saying that it is ‘indissoluble’ does not necessarily make it so.

    Ian G, it is not simply a question of constitutional legalities, the political dimensions are more significant ie if other nations recognised an act of self determination by the ‘Republic of New South Wales’, the federalistas would incur some international wrath by attempting to intervene, again, think Serbia and the rest of Yugoslavia, and international law.

    The independent State of RNSW would argue that the federal system had evolved to politically destroy the states, against the historic wishes of the founding fathers.

    As in propery law, possession is 9 tenths, a fait accompli for secession would be an act that the feds could not practically reverse without civil war. Our system was predicated on a federal model, (and a hybrid from the Brits unitary system), borrowed from the US, so when the feds want to destroy the states, the constitutional ‘contract’ CAN be declared null and void, if you like by ‘unconscionable conduct’, to use the legal analogy in contract law.

    When one considers tin pot nations like Nauru, with a seat at the UN, secession has a certain appeal.

  23. In complete argeement with Homer on the point that it would be political sucide to mess with the GST legalisation. Cutting funding to states would shift all the state level problems on to the Federal Government. Plus it would set a very bad precedent and “nothing ever happens a vacuum”. (I dare say one day there will state Liberal governments again under a federal Labor Government.)

  24. Most of the two thirds of Australians not employed in the public sector couldn’t give a stuff which level of government you got rid of- as long as one goes.

    Having 2 hands in your pocket as opposed to 3, would save us the cost of one snout in the trough and the bother of one layer of bureaucracy, making Australia close to utopian

    At the top end you have a power-grabbing commonwealth and at the lower end you have dysfunctional local municipalities.

    The states could loosely be described as large regional governments. Local
    Governments could be taken over by the states to increase their mass and help counter centralism.

    We have seen productivity improvements in other sectors of the economy. The time has come for the public sector to increase its productivity.

    Governments are self-regulating monopolies (like an unregulated toll bridge that everybody has to cross) and as such they do not have any competition to keep them efficient.

    Well run private sector businesses that are subject to competition, achieve greater economies of scale and become more efficient as they grow with the economy. Generally they employ less capital to provide more goods or services as they get bigger and achieve greater economies of scale and efficiencies.

    Looking at the government the opposite appears to be happening. They spend more capital to provide less goods or services as the economy grows.

    We have rudderless, inefficient and fiscally undisciplined government bureaucracies, operating on a forever rising golden river of taxation revenue.

    The excesses of government have reigned unchecked more than a century. Its size has increased from 6% of GDP to 32% over the last 100 years. See table 27.19 on this web page:!OpenDocument

    Australia can’t afford large government. The time for reducing the size of government has come. If we can’t get rid of the states then start with local government.

  25. Econowit, You are looking in the wrong place. The States and Regional governments are much closer to the people – and far more accessible for most voters. Trim the Commonwealth government back to international relations, national defence and international trade.

    The Commonwealth Government is the insatiable behemoth in our system. It is the one destroying federalism and polluting state autonomy.

  26. The biggest drawback to Federalism is the main taxing power, which the smaller states wouldn’t want back from the Feds because they would be disadavantaged over their current subsidised status. WA, SA and perhaps to a lesser extent NT are city states with bugger all outside the capitals(except perhaps WA with mineral wealth) It would be hard to produce any viable regions outside the capitals in these city states. A case of cities or snakes and goannas really.

    With income tax, GST and excise in the hands of the Feds, the states struggle to compete on the tax crumbs which become increasingly important to them.

    There is little economic point in the states outbidding each other to attract business, particularly the multinats and it doesn’t make sense to have different rail gauges or road/registration rules. Think truckies and running multiple log books. All that leaves is tinkering about with shopping hours, daylight saving and anti-vilification laws, the last a good case for federalism over centralism it would appear.(Gallop ditched Bracks can of worms with the Muslims and Pentecostalists)

    The attraction of Regionalism does run into the country/city schism all the time and perhaps Globalisation leads inevitably to more centralism too.

  27. PK, it’s not that saying “indissoluble” makes it so, but that these things get morally reinforced by usage. Let the republicans throw away some of that habit by asserting that the preamble is meaningless (for their own purposes, of course), and that reduces the effect of the whole. It loses the weight that crystallises out around the form. That’s why forms matter, and Mao Tse Tung was at such pains to emphasise “paper tigers” – he wanted to remind people of the paperiness before substance accreted (which it often has throughout Chinese history, e.g. the 1920s Chinese government itself).

Comments are closed.