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After June 2005: co-operative federalism? « Previous | |Next »
March 15, 2005

Nicolas Gruen over at Troppo Armadillo has a post on cooperative federalism. The post displaces the standard perspective of the consequences of the Howard Government controlling the Senate after June 2005. Instead it looks at what can (may?) be achieved from the opportunities opened up by the current alignment of ALP state governments. The post is a list of what people hope can be achieved in a federal polity based on the geographical version of the separation of powers.

Nicolas does not mention the historical irony of the reversal of the federal history of the 20th century: today it is the ALP defending the states in a federal polity whilst the conservative Howard Government are the centralists. For the next 6 years federalism is going to be the site of intense political conflict between friends and enemies; a site where the gears of our political machinery will continue to grind against one another--as they always have.

Cooperative federalism is usually associated with Bob Hawke's early 1990s conception of improving and streamlining the administrative machinery of government before the arch centralist Keating killed it off. This was later remodelled as COAG and competition policy by Prime Minister Keating, and it continues today under Prime Minister Howard. That reworking was the Commonwealth holding a competition gun to the head of the states. However, cooperative federalism was ably defended by Senator Robert Hill when he was the Federal Environment Minister.

The history of federalism, cooperative or otherwise, has been a history of continual intrusions by a central government in the affairs of the states. That intrusion has been legitimated by the High Court--that keystone of the federal arch. Simply put, the High Court failed to protect the states through the long centralist march. The GST just might give the states the financial lifeline they so desparately need to prevent them from becoming beggars on main street.

Today the ALP understands the new cooperative federalism as one in which the Commonwealth works with the States to get good outcomes for Australian citizens in areas like education and health. For Peter Beattie cooperative federalism means a partnership within Australia's system of government based on dividing roles within a subject area (concurrent federalism). For Bob Carr it means dividing responsibilities between levels of government by allocating discrete subject areas (coordinate federalism),eg., the comonwealth takes over health whilst the states retain teaching.

Co-operative federalism for the ALP is not an argument for States’ rights as it was for the conservatives throughout the 20th century. The Alp's understanding of co-operative federalism stands for an attempt to make the machinery of Federal system of government function more smoothly. Instead of subsidiarity it represents the future promise of the possibility of the states and the Commonwealth acting jointly in the national interest.

However, federal Labor is not in power in Canberra and probably will not be for 6 yers. Their enemies are in power. The new centralists are full of reformist zeal and they desire to roll back the props of the old welfare state institutions the ALP is still willing to defend. Greg Craven observes:

John Howard's new majority in the Senate will produce a Commonwealth Government with unparalleled confidence. The ambitions in the area of industrial relations, water, defamation law and education are likely to aggravate federal-state relations, leaving them like a brawl in a pub.

This is what I see as well.

An example. The Federal Treasurer, Peter Costello, is currently waving the centralist stick, without mentioning that he is going beyond the GST's intergovernmental agreement.

Will there be co-operation as well as a brawl? Honestly I see creeping centralism not cooperative federalism. But centralism is the neo-liberal agenda is it not?

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 6:02 PM | | Comments (0)