Senior Canberra party bosses and bureaucrats are poised to further extend their powers over states during the coming decade.
The main reason is that the Liberal Party’s leadership has broken with tradition to follow Labor’s long-standing centralist approach to governing.
Last month, former Liberal Prime Minister John Howard unambiguously confirmed his commitment to centralism during a public debate jointly undertaken with long-time centralist promoter, ex-Labor Prime Minister, Bob Hawke. “If we were starting this country again, you wouldn’t have states you’d have regions,” Mr Howard said. “Over time, I hope the states have less and less authority.”
Mr Hawke fully agreed, but added that there were still some reasons to keep the state borders intact. “We should keep the boundaries for the purposes of Sheffield Shield cricket and State of Origin … but that’s it,” Hawke said. (The Australian, April 22, 2010).
However, Howard has not always been as candid about his centralist urge. In the past he denied being a centralist and, whenever quizzed on this issue, responded by claiming he was a nationalist. “I am, first and last, an Australian nationalist,” Howard said during a 2004 address.
But in the same address he didn’t hesitate to belittle federalists or states-righters, both of whom once formed the traditional heartland of the Liberal Party.
“When I think about all this country is, and everything it can become, I have little time for state parochialism,” declared Howard.
More ominous for the states over the coming decade is the fact that current Liberal leader, Tony Abbott, in his book, Battlelines, has included a draft bill to pave the way for handing over state powers to Canberra in a way that would have sparked Liberal uproar if done by the Whitlam Labor Government.
Abbott unfailingly backed all of Howard’s centralist policies, which make up the Liberal Party’s watershed transformation away from the federalist tenets that the late Sir Robert Menzies regarded as immutable.
What Howard probably failed to appreciate was that his sympathy for regions was precisely what Labor’s platforms since the 1920s envisaged. The father of these platforms was the late pro-Soviet Melbourne lawyer and Victorian state (later federal) MP, Maurice Blackburn (1880–1944), who believed that further political centralisation was the path to be adopted by Australia.
Blackburn’s blueprint sought to fragment Australia’s historic six states into 31 provinces/regions, each of which would be directly controlled by the national government that began being relocated to Canberra from 1927.
Labor also aimed to scrap not only the states, but also the states’ house – the Senate – since it would be redundant.
Replacing the Commonwealth’s bicameral (two-chamber legislature) would be an elected, 100-member, unicameral (single-chamber) legislature with “unlimited powers”.
Each province would be allowed to have a parliament of sorts, but only a unicameral one with no house of review (as we see today in Queensland, the Northern Territory and the ACT).
Provinces would be created by amalgamating local councils into larger authorities, so would be far smaller than the current states but far larger than shires.
The Whitlam Labor Government (1972-75) created 112 regions – the word province was no longer in vogue in the 1970s – which it began directly funding in order to circumvent state governments, which it envisaged eventually withering away.
All regions would ultimately be controlled by Canberra bureaucracies, meaning a single nationwide police force, single nationwide departments of education, health, transport and environment, to name just four.
Blackburn’s unitary or centralist provincial blueprint may have been influenced, in part, by the fact that South Africa – or more correctly, the Union of South Africa – and New Zealand had opted for unitary rather than federalist governing arrangements like the United States, Canada, Switzerland and post-Hitler Germany.
Hawke and Howard overlook the fact that Australia’s Commonwealth Government was created to have prescribed but limited powers – defence, immigration, communications, some provision of welfare, and oversight of the economy.
However, today’s centralists want the national government to supplant the states by fragmenting them into smaller and weaker entities and taking over many of their responsibilities, a development which the Liberal Party until the Howard era adamantly opposed.
Today Canberra has moved into areas never envisaged at the time of Federation, and this has resulted in large-scale bureaucratic duplication.
According to Mark Drummond, an academic at Canberra University’s Division of Management and Technology, this duplication is costing taxpayers “probably … more than $20 billion per annum”, or about $1,000 for every man, woman and child.
However, the recent remarks by Hawke, Howard and Abbott indicate that the Commonwealth Government, far from being confined to its original duties, as envisaged when the federal Constitution was framed, is likely to boost further the amount of duplication over coming years.
Joseph Poprzeczny is a Perth-based historian and writer.