Blog twins disagree

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.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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John Quiggin
John Quiggin
2022 years ago

Ken, you’ll be pleased to know that I no longer support a Commonwealth takeover of roads and housing. At the time I wrote the piece, in 1996, it seemed as if this was necessary to overcome vertical fiscal imbalance.

The GST has changed that. While I don’t accept the notion that it’s a state tax, it is a fixed source of state revenue that the Commonwealth can’t change without state consent (importantly the reverse is also true). So the shifts in hospitals and education would, I think, be enough to sort out the balance of responsibilities while getting some approximation of vertical fiscal balance.

Although I was a centralist long ago, I was a federalist when I wrote the piece in 1996 and I’m a federalist now.

Homer Paxton
Homer Paxton
2022 years ago

There is just one problem with this.

John Howard has never supported such a scheme yet!

Tim
Tim
2022 years ago

Um, not quite correct, Ken.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Care to expand, Tim?

cs
cs
2022 years ago

I suggest you read Tim’s post again Ken.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Oh yes, I see. Thanks Chris. Tim’s last paragraph indicates he thinks Howard’s proposal might not be a bad idea after all. His post simply focuses on Howard’s posited evil motivations, while JQ leaps straight to an analysis of the policy merits. It’s more a double act than a disagreement. Oh well, the law of probability dictates that they’re bound to disagree with each other one of these days!

John Quiggin
John Quiggin
2022 years ago

Actually, I disagreed with Tim on this post, so it does happen from time to time.

Then again, I disagree with my own past positions sometimes.

Tony.T
2022 years ago

How ’bout Bronny Pike’s [Vic health minister] stock response – “Stupid idea. Give us more money.”

Take it Federal, I say.

cs
cs
2022 years ago

Ken, I reckon the more notable blog story here is that Tim, John and I, who are occasionally presumed to be partisan bloggers, all lined up behind the PM in policy terms on this one. Unfortunately, it seems that Jack must have got wind of this and become unnerved, as now he’s backflipped on it and wedged his own party. You just can’t help some people.

Tony.T
2022 years ago

Some nice ideas floating around, but “There is no proposal before the Government to change current arrangements.”

Don’t see a backflip there, Chris. You just can’t help some people.