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"...public opinion deserves to be respected as well as despised" G.W.F. Hegel, 'Philosophy of Right'

Australian federalism: dumping Menzies? « Previous | |Next »
April 12, 2005

It may be a longish game of federal poker with hands yet to be played:


The Prime Minister has just made an aggressive case for more federal power in major policy areas, arguing that state incompetence is forcing him to reshape federalism in a more centralist style. That case was made at the Menzies Research Centre in a speech entitled Reflections on Australian Federalism.

There he unconsciously aligned himself with those (Whitlamites) in the ALP who have been unsympathetic to federalism because they see it as an inconvenient and unncessary conservative impediment to necessary reforms. Replaying Whitlam's emphasis on unity and nationhood in place of the old fashioned federal divisions and State rights, Howard outdoes Whitlam to embarking on the greatest centralisation of power in Australia since World War II.

The irony is that, whilst honouring the Menzies heritage, the PM dumps on Menzies' Burkean tradition's respect for tradition, the rule of law, the federal constraint on political power, and the checks and balances of liberal democratic constitutionalism.

More power to the Commonwealth in Canberra means more individual freedom is the PM's argument. That argument has very little to do with liberalism based on a minimal state to protect individual freedom. Howard's reversal of classical liberalism is an expression of a Hobbesian-style conservatism that favours the strong central state.(Leviathan)

For Hobbes politics is based on the desire of power and the fear of death. The social contract is one in which a multitude of men gave up their rights and freedom to an authorized sovereign authority to act on their behalf. The sovereign must be absolute to overcome the haunting fear of death that we have in a state of nature. A nation-state's primary reason for existence is for the safety of the population.

So Howard is asking us citizens to give Canberra all the power to encroach on our liberty to ensure our security in a fearful world full of threats and terror.

Is Howard trashing the Menzies' tradition of federalism?

Menzies himself retained a federal balance whilst removing the excess on both sides. He says:

"...Australian federalism has already sustained a great change which affects the originally designed balance or distribution of powers. Centripetal movements are not likely suddenly to halt themselves. Except in the unlikely event that there is a wide public demand for confining financial demands upon the Commonwealth to those matters which fall within Commonwealth legislative power, and for re-establishing the independent taxing power and responsibility of State Governments, the centripetal movement must be accepted."

Sounds like a support for Howeaerd doesn't it? However Menzies continues:
If this be the position, we are confronted by two tasks of great practical importance. One is to see that the growing financial power of the Commonwealth is exercised in such a way as to permit the States to discharge their own constitutional duties. The other is to abandon, not the principles of federalism, but that excessive emphasis upon purely local rights which is proving such an impediment to the creation of a truly national sentiment and pride.

If you shift beyond the excessive emphasis on state rights and parocialism, then you shift to a position in which the States can, and should be, in a position to discharge their constitutional duties.

Howard's centralization is a taking over the duties of the States and concentrating evere more power in the Commonwealth. Howard is dumping the Menzies' tradition of co-operative federalism, which was continued by the national competition policy of the Hawke-Keating ALP government working with Liberal state governments. It is a fundamental rupture.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 12:10 PM | | Comments (0) | TrackBacks (2)

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Australian federalism: dumping Menzies?:

» Federalism, Howardism, Principles, Subsidiarity from Larvatus Prodeo
Gary Sauer-Thompson over at public opinion correctly argues that Howard's federalist manifesto has nothing much to do with liberalism or maximising citizens' freedoms: The irony is that whilst honouring the Menzies heritage the PM dumps on Menzies' ... [Read More]

» Contradictions from Kick & Scream
I read through John Howard's speech to the Menzies Research Centre, in which he explains why his government has abandoned federalism, and was struck by how contradictory it is. Take this for example:At various times, State Governments of both politica... [Read More]