Power of the states too great

The Great Health and Hospitals War has, on the whole, been a pretty unedifying affair. But it has had one useful outcome: even the staunchest conservatives are now having second thoughts about the wisdom of our founding fathers in reserving so much power for the states.

Historically, this was hardly surprising, since those same founding fathers were originally all colonial politicians; considerably more hirsute than the present lot, but equally dependent on the support of their local constituencies, who were just as parochial as today’s State of Origin crowds.

So when it came to drawing up plans for federation, the key question was not how much power the Commonwealth Government would need to function effectively, but how much the states could retain for their own administrations. Defence and what was then called External Affairs had to be ceded to the central government, but that hardly mattered because Australia’s foreign interests were then seen to be identical with those of Great Britain, so Whitehall was really calling the shots anyway.

The free traders won a few concessions which gave the Commonwealth the customs service and limited jurisdiction over shipping and railways, but that was about it; the states were left with health, education, law and order, most transport, ports and harbours and anything else that wasn’t specifically handed over. And of course they have their own parliaments and their own law courts – just about all the apparatus of a real nation except an army and navy, although there have been times when their police forces seemed to be filling almost that role.

But just what are these bloated and self-important entities, anyway? They are the former colonies whose territories were determined originally by bored British civil servants drawing lines on inaccurate maps of places that they had never seen. In most case the boundaries are purely arbitrary; even in the rare cases when they are based on geography (the Tweed and Murray rivers) they have absolutely nothing to do with the economies of the regions, let alone the popular culture.

The anomalies are both obvious and absurd: the people of far western New South Wales, for instance, have adopted the time zone of South Australia and the ongoing disputes over daylight saving meant businesses on either side of the Queensland-New South Wales border have made similarly confusing adjustments in summer. It is obvious that the residents of, say, Tweed Heads have more in common with those of the Gold Coast than with those of distant Broken Hill, but the state lines recognise no such reality. And until the 1950s passengers between Australia’s two largest cities, Sydney and Melbourne, had to change trains at Albury because each of the states had its own jealously guarded railway gauge.

The situation is beyond the ridiculous, and the High Court – a Commonwealth institution – has recognised the fact by slowly but consistently eroding state powers as far as the Constitution can be stretched. This move towards centralism has been resisted by the conservatives, who bleat about the states’ rights; but they are also the first and loudest to complain about the waste, duplication and inefficiencies the system generates.

And indeed it was the conservatives who were the most consistent advocates of a national schools curriculum, even if some of them don’t like the version which actually emerged. During the Howard years there was an attempt to wrest water management from the states and Tony Abbott, as Health Minister, canvassed the idea of a total Commonwealth takeover of the hospital system. So with both sides of politics moving in the same direction, perhaps it is time for another look at the tin full of worms which is our federal system.

Certainly the public is ready for it; study after study has found an overwhelming view that we are over-governed, with the states considered the least efficient and most dispensable of the three spheres. The replacement of both states and local councils by a system of regional governments based on commonality of interest and need was first proposed 40 years ago by Gough Whitlam; the obstacles to its actual implementation remain immense, but perhaps – just perhaps – it is finally time.

[Drop Initial]And speaking of the states, aren’t the Labor dominos proving hard to topple? To the surprise of many commentators and the fury of the Liberal Party, the wash up from the two state elections held last month has left Labor in power in both.

In South Australia Mike Rann ended up losing the popular vote, but Labor’s concentration on the marginal seats left him with a workable majority in parliament. In Tasmania the Hare-Clark system, as forecast, delivered a hung parliament of 10 Labor, 10 Liberal and five Greens, and the Labor premier David Bartlett, true to his word, recommended that governor Peter Underwood commission the Liberal leader Peter Hodgman to form a government; the Libs had polled more votes than Labor, and this was seen as the tie-breaker. But Underwood was unconvinced: his own sources told him that the Greens were more likely to provide stability for a Labor administration than for a conservative one, and this was eventually confirmed by the Greens leader Nick McKim. So Underwood followed convention and left the existing government in place; Bartlett had greatness thrust back upon him and started haggling with McKim.

The upshot is that Labor dominance across the map of Australia is unchanged: Western Australia’s Colin Barnett remained the sole Liberal premier or chief minister, with the other five states and both territories held by Labor. The hold is, of course, not secure; much of John Brumby’s blustering about hospitals and the GST can be put down to his belief that a bit if good old-fashioned Canberra bashing will help at a tight election later this year, and Kristina Kenneally, while personally popular, heads an apparently doomed administration in New South Wales.
But the Labor hegemony has proved unusually stable. Given the mediocrity or worse of most of its ministers in the states and territories, this provides yet another reason to take a good hard look at the present structure.


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