March 02, 2005

The demolition of the Constitution

You don't often have op-eds on the Australian Constitutionin the Australian press. But Greg Craven had one yesterday in The Australian entitled, Betrayal of Menzies. Since the article will disappear after a few days I will spell Craven's argument out.

The usual attitude to the Australian constitution is that it's federal division of powers apply the brakes to the economy. As the Australian Financial Review states:

"This division does not reflect current realities or help us to solve national problems in a timely way. Federalism's division of powers work well as a bulwark against undue concentration of power in any one level of government. But it tangles up the lines of accountability and financial responsibility between the three levels of government and the institutions they control, from schools and hospitals to railways, ports and industrial relations. This makes it hard to deal with emerging problems such as labour, skills, and infrastructure shortages until they are verging on crisis, and encourages buckpassing, cost-shifting and name-calling."

Craven thinks otherwise to this economic thinking. He defends federalism, and argues that Australian political elites have tried to undermine the federal principles. Craven says:
"Historically, it has been the Australian Left that has reviled the Constitution. Most recently, the Left has found deeply trying the Constitution's dogged refusal to invest unelected judges with absolute power over human rights and it has hurled its anathemas accordingly.

But, long before this, Labor and its allies loathed the Constitution on a quite different score. They longed to dismantle its clanking federalism and replace it with an efficient centralising apparatus that would usher in all forms of marvels, from wage control to price fixing. From Billy Hughes to Gough Whitlam, Labor did battle with Australian constitutional federalism. Casualties were heavy on both sides but, if Labor gave the states as good as they got, it never quite managed to get the states."

I pretty much accept this interpretation of the ALP's position this battle over federalism during the 20th century.In this battle the political right has defended federalism.

Greg Craven says:

"Throughout these battles...the Australian political Right stood with the Constitution and its inherent federalism. It did so not only out of a desire to frustrate Labor's agenda for social and economic control but also from a deep if vague understanding of the link between federalism on the one hand, and notions such as liberalism, conservatism and even democracy on the other.

Liberals, such as Robert Menzies, harking back to the great constitutional founders such as Alfred Deakin and Edmund Barton, comprehended that federalism was not just a regrettable historical reality of Australian government. Quite beyond that, federalism was an organising principle of government designed to protect just those qualities of freedom, balance, community and difference dear to liberals and conservatives."

The standard reference to state rights tends to short circuit this broader understanding of federalism.

What then is the principle of federalism? Craven does not disappoint on this.


"...federalism first promotes freedom by balancing the powers of two spheres of government, one against the other, so ensuring that in Australia there is, by definition, no totality of power. Moreover, the existence of these two spheres guarantees competing public dialogues of power, ensuring that few policy balls go through to the keeper unremarked in Australia.

Consequently, from education and health to industrial relations and the environment, there is no sphere of government in Australia that is all-powerful and none whose proposals cannot be subjected to an organised critique from a fellow government."

The second principle of federalism is that:
"....federalism ensures (or aims to ensure) that the policy issues closest to regional communities are determined substantially by those communities by committing those issues to local state governments, not the remote bureaucracy of Canberra. In so doing, it not only magnifies local democracy but also promotes decisions practically adapted to local conditions and difference.

Balanced power, contained government, local control of local affairs and respect of regional difference: there hardly could be a governmental creed more palatable to conservative tastes."

Yet the political wheel turns. Today it is the conservatives who are out to demolish federalism. Craven says:
"...the Howard Government is spitting out Australian federalism like so much constitutional gristle. In its casual abandonment of its federalist conservative heritage, the administration of John Howard appears to have embarked on the greatest centralisation of power in Australia since World War II. Then, at least, inroads on Australia's federal character could be justified as a response to the demands of total war...In their unadorned determination to exploit power while the going and the Senate is good, many of Howard's ministers display no parallels with a Deakin or a Menzies, who reluctantly understood that constitutional restraints on the untrammelled exercise of power are a given good, even if--and perhaps especially when--they most irritatingly restrain you."

And irony of ironies, says Craven, the conservative politicians resemble the old leftist social engineers they profess to despise who, having briefly stormed the citadels of power, will brook no inhibition or argument against the full implementation of their program of the hour.

The new conservatives are, in short, neither liberals nor conservatives with a respect for balance and restraint but merely politicians in the usual self-important hurry towards eventual, inevitable replacement by their opponents.

That's the Craven account. I agree with it, even on I'm on the left.

Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at March 2, 2005 04:23 PM | TrackBack
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