Mungo MacCallum- Political Corrections

Howard in a real state over federalism

In the primeval days when I was a young reporter in the Canberra Press Gallery, we used to fill in the dull periods by vying for the most boring story of the day.

The entrants usually included roll-on, roll-off shipping; tariff reform in the footwear, clothing and textile industries; the wool floor price scheme; supply-side economics the list went on. But there could only be one winner, and always and inevitably it was the new federalism.

The great thing about the new federalism was that it was not only incredibly tedious but apparently eternal: other eye-glazers might come and go, but there was always some grey politician somewhere spruiking his idea for a new deal in Commonwealth-state relations. And so it was last week, when Treasurer-for-life Peter Costello sought to revive his public image by some mutterings at a dinner for Australias 100 Most Influential Figures for which, incidentally, he failed to make the cut.

His idea that the states should concentrate on becoming deliverers of traditional services such as health, education and law and order, while ceding all policy control to the Commonwealth, understandably failed to capture the imagination of millions, in spite of Tony Abbott helpfully quoting Karl Marx to the effect that the states would eventually wither away altogether. It did, however, cause a few internal waves.

John Howard, who has now matured from being a single-minded control freak to a fully fledged totalitarian megalomaniac, made it clear that he believed the Commonwealth already held all the important strings, at least as far as the economy was concerned. As for leaving the provision of services to the states well, that might be all right on some areas, but not in education, where it was well known that state governments were mere pawns of the teachers unions and would end grants to private schools given half a chance. As Prime Minister he would fight to the death for the right of the Kings School to a second air-conditioned underground rifle range, so education was out.

Presumably health would also be out, in case the huge and wasteful subsidies to the private funds should also come under attack. However, the states would still be free to build as many jails as they could afford.

This scenario failed to appeal to the premiers, who told Costello to go and put his head in a bag, and it would have been acrimony as usual except for the fact that the whole idea of new federalism was to form the basis of the meeting between Howard and the premiers this week. We had a preview when a meeting of state and Commonwealth education ministers broke up in disorder in the wake of the comments by Howard and Costello. Now it seems that the grandly titled Council of Australian Governments is headed for the same fate.

On behalf of the premiers, Victorias Steve Bracks had prepared a complex scheme by which the Commonwealth could use carrots and sticks to bring the states to previously agreed performance benchmarks. Both state and Commonwealth bureaucrats had been working on it for months. It was seen as a rare opportunity to cut out some of the overlap and boost efficiency all round.

However, at the weekend Howard pre-emptively tossed it aside: he wasnt going to give the states any kind of free ride. More ominously, sources close to Costello (i.e. the man himself) threatened vaguely that the arrangements by which the states get the revenue from the GST might have to be reconsidered unless they fell into line. It has been clear for some time that the GST hasnt been delivering the benefits to the states that they hoped for when they enthusiastically voted for what was described as their own growth tax; now it appears that they put their necks on the economic block in the process.

Howard and Costello may not agree on much these days, but both have an abiding contempt for state premiers, especially when they are Labor. Gough Whitlam, who sought unsuccessfully to bring the states to heel by the use of special purpose grants under section 96 of the Constitution, must be shaking his nonagenarian head in envy.

There, that was pretty boring, wasnt it? Thats why the popular press is more interested in the latest on the leadership and the amazing fact that Costello still seems to believe that he is the only person in Australia Howard wouldnt lie to.

Inevitably we too will return to that subject. But first, the really hot news: yes, Alan Jones is homosexual. While this has been the worst kept secret of all time, it is believed that the sordid details of some of his relationships might sell a lot of books.

One would have thought that the free marketeers of the ABC board Janet Albrechtsen, Ron Brunton, Keith Windschuttle and others less prominent would have been delighted at the prospect of Aunty earning some extra money; after all, they have been urging for years that the ABC should become more commercial and less dependent on government grants.

But not, apparently, if it involves outing one of the Liberal Partys most fervent and reliable assets. It was Danna Vale who urged Jones to stay brave and true. He has never shown the slightest tendency to do otherwise. Now, it appears, the governments stooges on the board are reciprocating.

Chris Masterss book will, of course, still be published and will sell better than ever. But Jones has been assured that Howards chaps at least tried to protect him. That sordid relationship is still intact.

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