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September 28, 2004


Today's editorial in the Australian Financial Review (subscription required) is about federalism: Howard's new federalism. It suggests that Howard has been converted to centralism with his proposal for federal technical colleges.

John Quiggin supports this interpretation of Howard's educational policies. He observes:

"One aspect of the govenment's spending spree that has attracted relatively little attention is its implications for Federal-State relations. In important respects, these policies are more centralist than anything seen since the Whitlam era. Throughout the health and education sectors in particular, Howard is seeking to get involved in policy areas that have previously been left to the state, and to do so with direct day-to-day control."

The AFR supports these proposed federal technical colleges, even if they look like a return to the past. It then critically assesses Howard's conversion:

"If Mr Howard has really converted to centralism, he should spell out his vision and lett he voters pass judgement. But he has not consistent view; he also argues it would undermine federation for the commonwealth to take over hospitals. While there is a strong case for rationalising our three layers of government, there is also a case for the commonwealth to set goals and funding terms but stay out of the micro-management of schools. Mr Howard needs to explain his approach to federalism rather than just lobby rocks in the water."

John Quiggin concurs. Howard's federal/state policies are a hodge podge. He says that whereas

"..... Whitlam was a consistent centralist, these policies are a logical mess. The general line is that the states should be kept on a tight financial leash, but not relieved of any of their basic responsibilities for schools, hospitals, the TAFE sector and so on. Meanwhile, the Commonwealth will provide lavishly funded frills for schools with a "made in Canberra" label, operate a parallel line of Rolls-Royce TAFEs and pick and choose priorities in the health sector."

I'm not sure that the proposed technical colleges will be Rolls-Royce TAFEs. They will be more like the old trade schools baseed on the old manual/ hands on versus mental/academic distinction. What is new is that these technical colleges will be private businesses charging full fees.

There is a lot of politics here, as Shaun Carney points out. He argues that the Howard Government knows that the Commonwealth and the states are seen by citizens to have not done all that much to address the weaknesses in vocational education. But the public and technical/trade education system is run by the states, currently under the control of the ALP. So Howard & Co are not going to offer money to the political enemy. They want the credit. Hence the embrace of centralism by those who were once state right advocate.

There is an old chestnut buried in all of this: federalism=centralism. This is a view that has history behind it. This history since Federation in 1901 has been one of the states in a decline trajectory and the commonwealth having a greater say because it has the money.

Those who equate federalism with centralism see the states as clients of the commonwealth, with the states as being suitable for the geographical delivery of health, education and transport services. Hence the recent support for the commonwealth to take over the state-run hospitals and TAFE.

What is rejected is this understanding of federalism. More on this conception of federalism by Chief Justice Murray Glesson here. That view of federalism implies that the states should be properly funded to carry out their educational responsibilities within the existing federal structure.

Like the universities, the TAFE sector has suffered from bad neo-liberal polices that saw the states transformed TAFE institutions into stand alone educational businesses that turned a profit. It has not worked. Unlike the universities, the commonwealth has not put a couple of billion dollars into TAFE.

Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at September 28, 2004 01:48 PM

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