Today marks the first time I can remember when those self-styled “blog twins” John Quiggin and Tim Dunlop have disagreed with each other. Tim
opposes John Howard’s announced desire for federal control of hospitals, and reckons Howard is “a control freak who wants as much as possible under his own control“.
John Quiggin, on the other hand, strongly supports Howard’s position:
Still, since I have long advocated this idea myself (see the AFR article below), I’m happy to endorse it. The mixture of state and commonwealth funding for health is a recipe for cost-shifting and administrative duplication. If the Commonwealth took over health completely, and somehow managed to hand the GST properly to the states, it would also largely resolve the problem of vertical fiscal imbalance.
I tend to agree with JQ’s position, and precisely for the reasons he cites. JQ also suggests the Commonwealth should take over full responsibility for the higher education and TAFE/VET sectors. Again I agree: these areas are mostly funded by the Commonwealth anyway, but still operate under State legislation. Responsibility shared is too frequently responsibility evaded.
JQ also suggests a countervailing surrender of Commonwealth power in relation to secondary and primary education, with the states having complete legislation and funding responsibility. The Commonwealth would cease using its powers to make tied grants under section 96 of the Constitution to dictate matters of education policy to the States and Territories. Again I agree. Regional and local differences require diversity and flexibility in these areas, and state/territory control is more conducive to those qualities. On the other hand, moves towards a national curriculum currently being promoted by Federal Education Minister Brendan Nelson are long overdue, but should be achieved by co-operation between the States and Territories rather than the overarching use of Commonwealth fiscal power.
However John also tentatively suggests that the Commonwealth should assume full responsibility for roads and housing. That’s where I part company with the good professor. Quite apart from the fact that, like primary and secondary education, local differences make state/territory control more appropriate, transferring control of so many large areas to the Commonwealth would effect a decisive centralist shift in Australia’s federal system. Presumably John is a centralist, albeit one who grudingly accepts the continuing existence of state governments. Personally, I’m a passionate federalist, and I would oppose anything that further undermines the Australian federal balance: the High Court has gone more than far enough in that direction over the last century.
While centralism has always tended to be associated with the left, and support for federalism with the right, there’s no inherent reason why that must be so (as Howard’s current position illustrates). Certainly some versions of social democratic principle may lead to a conviction that strongly interventionist government action is critically important, and hence to a belief in strong centralist government rather than federally dispersed (and therefore weaker) political power. But other versions of social democracy place greater emphasis on individual freedom and creating checks and balances against state coercive power. Tim Dunlop himself has in the past professed to be a “left libertarian”, so perhaps that explains his instinctive opposition to what he sees as a Howard power grab
Geoffrey de Q Walker published an excellent article at Centre for Independent Studies around 3 years ago, titled Ten Advantages of a Federal Constitution. It’s well worth reading IMO, and summarises far more eloquently than I could why federalism is a feature of our system that needs to be jealously defended. Incidentally, the commitment to a federal model in Iraq’s interim constitution is one of the main reasons why I’m cautiously optimistic about the ultimate success of their experiment with liberal democracy.