John Stone admires the PM, but he objects to his increasingly centralist Government.
The Prime Minister’s address on April 11, Reflections on Australian Federalism, stated his Government’s goal: “To expand individual choice, freedom and opportunity, not to expand the reach of central government.”
So far, so admirable. Yet any disinterested observer watching what the Government is doing, rather than what it is saying, must question that notion.
A government seeking those objectives would give primacy to protecting our federal Constitution, our most important bulwark against the centralisation of power in Canberra (the depredations of the High Court and successive federal governments notwithstanding). Instead, John Howard’s speech is a plea for yet more intrusions by Canberra into areas that are none of its business – whether by outright takeover of state responsibilities or by salami-style incremental empire-building.
A government so careless of our Constitution brings to mind the great words of Thomas Jefferson: “The two enemies of the people are criminals and governments, so let us tie the second down with the chains of the Constitution so the second will not become the legalised version of the first.”
I am no zealous Howard-hater. Indeed, I have been among his most loyal supporters (as distinct from sycophants, of whom he has no lack). More than 10 years ago, I urged the parliamentary Liberal Party to dump its then leader and restore Howard in his place. When he was “considering his future” in 2003, I argued publicly several times that his retirement then would be disastrous for Australia, disastrous for the cause of cultural conservatism in Australia, and disastrous for the Liberal Party’s future.
And, in June 2003, after Howard had said he was staying on, I even ventured “the suggestion that, 10 years hence, John Howard could still be Prime Minister and the Labor Party could still be eating his dust”.
No one would be more pleased by that than I. Yet just as we did not re-elect Howard last October to emulate Malcolm Fraser’s do-nothing debacle, neither did we re-elect him to enact Gough Whitlam’s constitutional agenda. As Jeffrey Phillips said in The Australian (April 12, 2005): “The PM’s address on federalism … did nothing to allay concerns of a new centralism.” Those concerns will not be dispelled by sophistical assertions that it is not centralist to concentrate power as long as it is for a “liberal” cause.
Of the many outrageous claims in the speech, perhaps the most blatant is that the introduction of the GST constituted the most important federalist breakthrough since the Commonwealth took over income-taxing powers during World War II. This federalist breakthrough not only left the states with even less independent power to raise revenue, but also increased the overall taxation level.
The speech is also replete with straw men, the most obvious being Howard’s claim that “I am, first and last, an Australian nationalist” and “I have little time for state parochialism”. Paul Kelly, in The End of Certainty, described me as an Australian nationalist, and I do not yield even to the Prime Minister in wearing that badge of honour.
Where, it seems, I differ is in believing that my equally deep attachment to my state of origin (Western Australia) is fully compatible with that, and in resenting his impugning that attachment as “state parochialism”. As someone said, it is possible to walk and chew gum at the same time.
Yet another straw man is Howard’s claim that “I have never been one to genuflect uncritically at the altar of states’ rights”. That is just as well, because no informed commentator has used that term (other than for polemical purposes) for years, and an altar to it might therefore be hard to find. Our Constitution is framed throughout not in terms of states’ rights, but in terms of carefully limited Commonwealth powers, with residual responsibilities (not rights) remaining with the states.
“There has,” the Prime Minister said, “been some commentary of late that my Government has discarded its political inheritance in a rush towards centralism.” These fears “rest on a complete misunderstanding”. If so, the Government itself is largely responsible.
At a recent Samuel Griffith Society conference, its president, Sir Harry Gibbs, sent an apology because he was unable to attend, saying: “The cause of federalism needs defenders, since members of all the main political parties in Canberra seem determined to encroach on functions which were obviously intended to belong to the states. It may be true that not all state governments are models of efficiency, but they will not be improved by the commonwealth’s duplication of their functions; on the contrary … “
Gibbs is widely renowned as one of the best justices, and chief justices, in our High Court’s history. He, too, appears to share that aforementioned “complete misunderstanding”. As, indeed, do I. Few things have been more upsetting since last October than the swelling tide of ignorant centralism rushing out of Canberra – in the fields of health, education, infrastructure, rural and regional rorts, and so on.
The immature mouthings of the ministers for health and education, Tony Abbott and Brendan Nelson, have been especially notable. To judge by his address to the Young Liberals national conference on January 22, Conservatives Need Not be Sentimental About the States, the former has indeed become a serial offender.
Trashing the Constitution
To see how far the Government has already followed Whitlam down the road of trashing our federal Constitution, I recommended a paper to the Samuel Griffith Society conference by Bryan Pape, a senior law lecturer at the University of New England in Armidale, on The Use and Abuse of the Commonwealth Finance Power. Pape particularly focused on the gross misuse of section 81, first constitutionally abused by the Whitlam Government in 1974 with its Australian Assistance Plan (to pay grants directly to 35 regional councils for social development).
With that apparently as its model, the Howard Government appears to have decided that, irrespective of how the Constitution may confine the Commonwealth’s powers, it can do pretty much what it likes by simply calling it “a purpose of the Commonwealth”. Parliament will determine what are those “purposes”, not our Constitution – a view most bare-facedly expounded in 1975 by none other than Justice Lionel Murphy, Whitlam’s disgraceful (and later disgraced) political appointee to the High Court.
All this is being done by way of “leaning against an over-governed Australia” – “something that can become all too apparent in a federal system with eight Labor governments”.
In 2003, Howard blamed his Senate problems since 1999 on Opposition obstructionism, when the much more important reason was the Coalition’s dismal Senate performance in the 1998 GST election.
Now the failures of co-operative federalism are blamed on “eight Labor governments”, as distinct from eight state and territory Liberal parties in Opposition, ranging in competence from woeful (NSW) to derisory (Queensland).
It has been said that those who will not learn from history will be doomed to repeat it. Equally, those who misread the reasons for their political problems will be doomed to magnify them.
- John Stone, a former Treasury secretary and National Party senator, is conference convener of the Samuel Griffith Society. This article originally appeared in The Australian (April 18, 2005).
|Thomas Jefferson on political decentralism|
“… It is not by the consolidation, or concentration of powers, but by their distribution, that good government is effected. Were not this great country already divided into States, that division must be made, that each might do for itself what concerns itself directly, and what it can so much better do than a distant authority.
“Every State again is divided into counties, each to take care of what lies within its local bounds; each country again into townships or wards, to manage minuter details; and every ward into farms, to be governed each by its individual proprietor.
“Were we directed from Washington when to sow, and when to reap, we should soon want bread. It is by this partition of cares, descending in gradation from general to particular, that the mass of human affairs may be best managed, for the good and prosperity of all.”