Tuesday, August 21, 2007

A Federation soapbox

It seems a while since I’ve felt compelled to launch into an essay. So many issues, facts and figures swirl around political campaigns; and with the need to distil them into short sharp pieces. Of course many are parochial as well, not suited to this forum.

Federation, however, is an issue worthy of universal interest. Just at a time in history when federation, and the diversity it delivers, has come into vogue, Australia appears to be lumbering into a centralist model of national government.

A generation ago Australian’s would have gone to the trenches to defend the system of Federation enshrined by our constitution. Now mention of the federation or of a centralist alternative is more likely to generate that glazed eye look.

The constitution, adopted in 1901, was hammered out over a decade or so; hammered out to ensure each of the sovereign colonies would retain a reasonable position of strength under a union. I recently read a comment that if you took every reference to states and federation out of our constitution you would simply be left with confetti.

It is a construct of conservatism, and was rejected and still is, by the Labor movement. For the once socialist Labor party of Australia Power could only be effectively wielded from one central government. Now it is Howard’s conservative Liberals driving what the Prime Minister disingenuously styles as the “new federation’ or ‘aspirational nationalism’.

In driving this fundamental change, with Labor acquiescence, Howard is ignoring both the intent and provisions of the constitution. He claims that we shouldn’t waste time tinkering with systems but simply strive for outcomes.

The only problem with that is that the country, in the process, loses the map book; loses the underlying guidelines for our governance. Without set parameters the country can simply drift this way and that at the will of the latest holders of political power.

The constitution does allow agreed transfer of certain powers between the states and the federal government. The earliest was the transfer of taxation to the feds during wartime, but the states refused to take that unpopular power back.

It’s worth sharing a side comment from Sir Robert Garran (c1958):

We thank you for the offer of the cow,

But we can’t milk, and so we answer now,

We answer with a loud emphatic chorus;

Please keep the cow, and do the milking for us.

Since the constitution was adopted ‘external powers’ have become part of the Federal arsenal. These are to do with treaties with foreign countries and can reflect a very wide rang of issues, among them labor laws.

Now Howard is facing losing his hold on government the federal/state dynamic has taken on a new twist. With the states being held by Labor premiers Howard has developed a neat attempt to insert a wedge between premiers and Howard nemesis, Kevin Rudd.

Howard is now impinging on a number of areas of state responsibility, including; health, education, local government, rivers and water and ports infrastructure. The approach, at the very least, is creating a fuzzy outline on various responsibilities. Worse is the lack of discussion and consequent conflicting programs and funding being introduced.

It is not a smart way to run a country, using essential social and commercial services as political footballs. In many cases Howard has no real desire to win the fight he is taking on; his only desire is to destroy any opposition.

I would regret the loss of our federalist model, but to lose it without consultation with the people is not an acceptable option. The system is important and it is time now for Australian to start looking seriously at where we are heading.

In an odd way I am championing a conservative construct, but one that works! Just take the issue if diversity: One of the great moderators of democracy is checks and balances. By maintaining separate federal and state responsibilities and the diversity of a number of separate states, any policy screw-up is isolated and able to be modified more easily.

Once power is vested in one central government the ship of state becomes cumbersome and difficult to turn. There are no ‘safe’ experiments; every decision of the government must be right. There is simply no room to learn lessons and modify policies.

Another key effect is to remove those responsible for service delivery from the people and the local dynamic being serviced. Australia has a smaller population than Greater Los Angeles, but the geographical spread is greater than the continental USA. Needs and issues vary greatly across this vast landscape.

If that means a series of constitutional conventions, so be it. If it means a series of referenda then we should embrace the opportunity. Like most democracies at the moment, our greatest problem is the wider lack of engagement with things political.

I have been a political junkie most of my life, I find it difficult to avoid or ignore politics, wherever I am. But I know that is not a general condition, and I accept that most don’t share my passion. But we aren’t talking about passion when it comes to saving our democracies; vigilance and awareness should not be too much to ask.

If we simply allow the political elite to transform our country without consultation we deserve exactly what we will get.

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