Rudd’s states takeover

Thursday, 10 January 2008 

Mike Steketee’s article on Rudd’s new federalism is thorough, but shows the same touching faith over Rudd’s intentions with which the media have generally greeted his agenda so far. Like Rudd’s other actions since 24 November, his new federalism is part of the consolidation of power that was accelerated, but not completed, by the election. This consolidation is about a narrow cabal around the leadership pushing out competing claims within the party, including the unions and other power bases in the ALP. Rudd’s new federalism has a similar purpose, but is also driven by the needs of the states themselves.

Over the last twenty years, state government in Australia has become increasingly depoliticised. State politics has moved from being about ideological issues like anti-socialism and race to little more than the provision of state services. It is striking to look at states like Queensland that has moved from being run by that ‘Bible-bashing bastard’ Joh to a technocrat like Anna Bligh or the declining role that race plays (explicit or otherwise) in the Northern Territory.

This depoliticising of the states has generally benefitted the ALP, with its closer public service ties, but not smoothly. Over that time the Labor parties have generally gone through convulsions (State Banks collapses, WA Inc.) from the pro-union/business parties to technocrat organisations that are mainly seen as public administrators. This transformation of state politics to something much more boring is probably one reason why Labor State Premiers don’t seem to hang on like grim death to their offices like they used to and have such a propensity to ‘retire gracefully’ that seems to win so much applause in these anti-political times.

One arguable exception to this on the mainland is NSW, which has yet to break its union links like its neighbouring state governments. Its state government will be the one to watch in 2008 as it looks to catch up by picking a fight with the unions over privatisation plans.

Although the Labor party has adapted to this change, there are some problems. There used to be a lot of advantages in having a political agenda. Joh’s anti-socialism meant he didn’t have to bother with providing services even for his own constituency in Queensland’s rural region as long as they knew he would be tough on the commies in the unions. These days there is much more pressure on states to deliver, since that is all that they are seen to do. Howard played on this with his ‘failed states’ strategy. Running around and getting involved in state issues may not have done much for Howard’s authority on the national stage, but it did succeed in embarrassing the states.

This vulnerability is behind the states’ eagerness to fall in with Rudd’s agenda and he has taken advantage of it to take control of the state government agendas and by implication, the state ALP branches. This takeover is why federal Ministers, rather than the usual bureaucrats, are heading the move to centralise powers and using issues like education, hospitals to justify such a centralisation.

Although this is taking the form of Canberra taking over control of the states, what is really happening is that the depoliticisation of state government is now happening to the federal one as well. This is what Rudd means by ‘ending the blame game’ and saying that the buck will stop with him.

However, although there may be advantages in national coordination, there is no reason why the Canberra government should be any better at running a hospital than the one in Adelaide. Sooner or later Rudd could face the type of problems facing the state premiers. The Liberals picked up the potential problem with this move even before the election when Abbott kept on raising the difficulty of Canberra running 700 hospitals. Although Labor pointed out that that scenario was a long way down the line, that is the way things are now heading.

What Canberra does have that the states don’t is the international agenda. It is another reason why we will be hearing more about climate change not only nationally but as a way of Canberra asserting its authority over the states through issues like Murray River management and water restrictions. The more the Mandarin increases his control over the party, the more its agenda is likely to drift off overseas.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Thursday, 10 January 2008.

Filed under Key posts, State and federal politics

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