Probably as a result of their focus on endless dissections of federal Labor’s leadership woes, most bloggers seem to have overlooked a potentially very significant centralist gambit by Howard government Health Minister Tony Abbott in today’s Oz. The Mad Monk, it seems, is agitating for a hostile federal takeover of Australia’s public hospital system:
One option the Podger Review could consider is giving the commonwealth more say in the actual running of public hospitals commensurate with the funding it provides. …
And once the commonwealth Government is engaged in any particular area of responsibility, how can it avoid the demand to provide leadership?
But what arguments does Abbott muster in support of this mooted Commonwealth power grab?
First, that State ALP governments have failed to fulfil a role as “laboratories for policy innovation“, instead being merely “de facto members of the federal Opposition“. The evidence for this proposition? A claim that “18 per cent of the NSW Health Minister’s and 15 per cent of the Victorian Health Minister’s press releases were attacks on the commonwealth Government“!!! What does he expect them to do? Pump out puff pieces lauding the Monk as the world’s greatest health minister? Federal and State governments have been slagging each other ever since federation, irrespective of their respective political colours.
Abbott’s article takes an even more bizarre, almost surreal, twist in contrasting State Labor governments’ alleged lack of policy innovation with the records of past conservative Premiers:
[W]ithout a vigorous federal system, premiers such as Nick Greiner, Jeff Kennett, Richard Court and Joh Bjelke-Petersen would have been unable to pioneer policies that became best practice around the country.
Joh’s government was certainly well known for policy innovations, as the Fitzgerald Royal Commission detailed, but few apart from Tony Soprano or Chopper Read would be likely to see them as representing “best practice”. Nor could Jeff Kennett’s reform of Melbourne’s public transport system, although at least Jeffrey was just inept rather than corrupt.
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of Abbott’s article (apparently an edited version of a speech to a credulous audience of Young Liberals) is the breathtakingly cynical way he pays lip service to the critical importance of federalism as a political and constitutional concept, and then proceeds to rob it of all substantive content:
“Power divided is power controlled” is an important conservative principle. It would be quite wrong for a successful democracy such as Australia to tamper with its fundamental constitutional order.
It would be equally wrong for the commonwealth Government not to use the mechanisms provided for in the Constitution, such as agreements with the states and conditional grants under section 96 of the Constitution, to secure the best possible outcomes for the Australian people.
This is dangerous nonsense. One of the more disgraceful aspects of a century of High Court constitutional jurisprudence lies in its radically centralist interpretation of the section 96 grants power, not to mention an equally egregious approach to the treaties aspects of the external affairs power (section 51(29)). For at least the last twenty years, as a result of the accumulated weight of High Court decisions, there have been no effective constitutional constraints on any federal government using those two powers unilaterally to completely abolish federalism in all practical senses if it so wished.
The only constraints to unrestrained centralism have been political ones, not least the fact that the Liberal Party has always professed to uphold federalism as one of its central tenets. It has certainly been a principle often honoured in the breach, but until now it would have been difficult to argue convincingly that a significant commitment to federalism didn’t exist in the Liberal Party. Other political constraints have included the fact that federal governments of either persuasion have seldom controlled the Senate, and that there have almost always been at least a couple of State governments of the same political colour as their power-hungry federal colleagues. Neither of those constraints now apply to the Howard government, and if Abbott is allowed to get away with redefining federalism out of existence, the last inhibition against excessive central power will have disappeared.
I’m almost tempted to hope that the Libs win the forthcoming WA state election, so that there’s at least one State Liberal party branch with the resources and incentive to fight effectively against any Howard/Abbott federal power grab. It isn’t obvious (to me at least) that a Barnett Liberal government would be worse than (or even noticeably different from) Geoff Gallop’s colourless Labor administration.
I’m not arguing that reform isn’t sorely needed in relation to hospitals or health care more generally. Cost and blame-shifting by state and territory governments are practices that badly need addressing. But they have existed for a long time, and previous conservative party Premiers have been among their most enthusiastic exponents. Perhaps Abbott’s threats are best seen as merely a rhetorical waving of the big stick to get the Premiers and Chief Ministers to the negotiating table and talking seriously about meaningful health care reform. I certainly hope that’s all it is. Federalism is a far more important aspect of Australia’s liberal democratic constitutional order than many people seem to appreciate; every bit as important as separation of powers or the rule of law in guarding against tyranny and oppression. That’s why I’m puzzled that Abbott’s article hasn’t attracted more attention.