Labor and federalism

I’ve been attending Labor’s National Conference (more on this later), as an observer, mainly because I spoke at a “Fringe Conference” event on the topic of federalism. Amazingly, around 40 people turned out at breakfast time to hear me and Bob McMullen on this exciting topic.

A more substantive cause for surprise is that this is an issue (the only one I can think of – maybe others will suggest examples) where the major parties have swapped positions in the last 30 years. When the Whitlam government was elected in 1972, the view that the states were obsolete anachronisms and the Senate a collection of “unrepresentative swill” was pretty much unchallenged among Labor supporters, and this was even more true after 1975. Yet now it’s the Howard government that wants to bring the states entirely under the heel of the Commonwealth and to render the Senate a rubber-stamp.

In part, this is the effect of elections that have produced long-lived Labor State governments and an even longer-lived Liberal Federal government. If the position were reversed, I imagine old views would reassert themselves. But, on the Labor side at least, the change goes much deeper than election outcomes. As Labor has been forced to defend the achievements of the past against neoliberal attacks, the benefits of the checks and balances provided by democratically elected upper houses and a federal system have been more deeply appreciated. And the fact that the states (and also local government) are the natural providers of the services central to a social democracy has become more and more evident.

If Labor wins (and it’s notable that no-one I’ve met here is counting their chickens on this – even the formulaic references to a Rudd Labor government are matched with negative references to what a re-elected Howard would do), there’s a real chance to fix at least some of the overlap and duplication that plague our system at present, and to make talk about co-operative federalism correspond more closely to reality.

7 thoughts on “Labor and federalism

  1. IIRC John Gorton was of the opinion that the Federal government was to collect taxes and make policy, the states were to be bureaucratic vassals to disburse funds to implement federal policy. That approach has been pretty bi-partisan since then, including the minor parties such as the Green and Democrats.

  2. I was at the brekkie (organised by the Evatt Foundation ) and it was very enlightening, as a complete layperson. All we hear about it really is the ‘blame game’ catchphrase and NSW complaints about not getting enough so I was very interested to hear about the details and some of the very real issues. So thanks, John. Bob McMullan was very impressive too.

  3. Just in case anyone hasn’t heard the recent ABC Radio National history of the Liberal party (which deals with the Liberals’ position on the mater) – it can be downloaded at

    Well worth a listen.

    Judith Brett notes that Menzies didn’t appear to be particularly in favour of Federalism but had no particular reason to change it.

  4. One of the issues for the election will be the question of balance – whether a government of a different persuasion is necessary to counterbalance wall to wall state Labor Govts. This seems to have lost force as the Labor govts don’t always act as a group and on many occasions the states have cooperated well with the Commonwealth. At the same time it is painful to hear the blame game as most of us don’t really care whose responsiblity it is if we want something fixed. We have all had too much experience in our personal lives of being fobbed off with noone actually responsible to fix our particular problem.

    We saw an example of this the other day with deaths in a nursing home. The Minister for Aging Christopher Pyne quickly shifted the blame to the state as there was more to the story than bad food or water such as chronic staff shortages as a result of federal funding. It begins to look as if the only way to avoid this constant refrain from the Federal Government is to change it. It is more than overlap and duplication – it is about the shifting and denial of responsibility which has become such an artform with the current Federal government.

  5. …elections that have produced long-lived Labor State governments and an even longer-lived Liberal Federal government.

    Just a minor thing:

    Howard was elected on March 2nd, 1996. Carr won his election in NSW on 25th March 1995, almost a full year earlier. In NSW at least, Labor’s been around longer than Howard.

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