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.