The slow death of the state(s)

Friday, 5 March 2010 

The Coalition is right: Rudd’s hospital plan is a political plan more than anything else. However, that doesn’t make it any less significant. It indicates the fundamental changes underway in the Australian state, and how Rudd is looking to take advantage of it.

The problem with the media’s discussion over the states’ problems with the health service is that it takes it too much on its own terms. It is discussed as though there was some Golden Age of state services from which we have since fallen. Yet the real issue is not just the condition of the public services, but that state governments are seen as about little else.

State governments have depoliticised and hollowed out. We have no clearer example than in South Australia right now. It is not only the lack of difference between Labor and Liberal in an indescribably dull election campaign and this week’s “Great Non-Debate”. An even more graphic example of how little politics means at the state level is a SA Labor Cabinet that can comfortably accommodate a National MP and a former Liberal within it.

Without any political agenda, and any real base in society that it could represent, state government is becoming not only about little more than public services, but lacks the authority that might let them manage any problems that arise. Probably the clearest example is Queensland where Labor has had continual trouble over the sub-standard health system. But when was it ever not in Queensland? Twenty-five years ago Joh could preside over an abysmal level of services of health and education without it causing much problem whatsoever. Sure a gerrymander helped, but even in the rural regions where National support was entrenched, services were well below the national average. But Joh had above all a political agenda, which allowed him to get away with it for decades. When even Joh couldn’t sustain what was the nation’s last recognisable right-wing agenda, suddenly services became a problem and gave the leg up for aspiring bureaucrats called Kevin.

Labor’s clean sweep of the states was testament to its better ability to adapt to this depoliticising of state government over the last decade. But its hold on government is insecure, despite the massive and unprecedented majorities, and, as seen in WA, can get turfed out on the flimsiest pretexts. This is a sign not of the revival of the Liberals at the state level but rather that Labor might be able to adapt to the situation but not resolve the problem of what state government stands for. In reality, Labor has won state government because it stands for nothing, but can lose it for exactly the same reason.

In Canberra, they have the international angle, but without it, a similar problem. Using the declining authority of the state governments as a counter-foil for the political problems at the federal level has been governing federal relations for some time. Howard tried it on with his “war on the states” in the run up to the last federal election. It was a failure because there was no real content to the “war” and so came across as an empty political manoeuvre.

Rudd’s strategy has been more appropriate for the conditions. Even before the 2007 election, Rudd was using health as a basis for his anti-political agenda. In this case, he has offered a way for states to offload responsibility and deflect criticism away from them, while still setting up the possibility of targeting the states for playing political games if they don’t “get with the program”. For states like NSW and Queensland, where they have had flak for handling hospitals, it offers a basis for cooperation. Even in SA, where the government is struggling to find a reason for re-election, playing up its ability to be in a “partnership” with the federal government is one possibility, although there is hardly anything stopping the Liberals from doing the same.

Rudd’s plan to centralise funding at the federal level but promoting local control, bypassing the state government to split power between federal and local authorities, is an agenda he has been pursuing since he came to power. There are some similarities to what the Coalition, and especially Abbott, was musing while in government as a way of by-passing the state based public service unions. Rudd’s strategy no doubt has that element in it, with the ‘professionals’ like the AMA salivating over the opportunity of having more control. However, it also reflects how this is being taken a step further, accommodating to not just the declining power of the unions, but of the state itself.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Friday, 5 March 2010.

Filed under State and federal politics, Tactics, The Australian state

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11 responses to “The slow death of the state(s)”

  1. ben on 5th March 2010 10:34 pm

    so when do they put an axe through it all, or will the states continue on as nothing more than accounting mechanisms for federal funds?

  2. Tad on 6th March 2010 11:46 am

    Will Rudd’s agenda on health come unstuck?

    By focusing on the bureaucratic aspects of the plan as “the really big change we need” he may well end up looking as ineffectual as a state Premier. Voters may well wonder whether there would be any real change at the coalface, and any reduction in their anxieties about substandard care if they get ill.

    But in the substance of the plan—far-reaching microeconomic reform through implementation of quite radical market mechanisms inside the public system—he threatens to further alienate a section of the ALP’s traditional base, health workers. As one of those health workers, I can say that in the 16 years of my working life in the public system the intensification of work has been dramatic (and stressful!). How much further can these trends be pushed.

    The flow-on can only be a worsening of public hospital services, although not in time for the next federal election.

    This while he does nothing to challenge the increasing distortions and funding problems being caused by the balance of health priorities tipping further and further towards the private sector—from growing subsidies to private hospitals through the greater weight of taxpayer subsidy of Big Pharma through a weakened PBS.

    May I suggest that Rudd, while ignoring the traditional working-class ALP base in his anti-political posturing, is in reality proving his commitment to the neoliberal logic preferred by that other distinct social class. You know, the ones who “own the means of production”…


  3. Avalon Dave on 7th March 2010 11:26 am

    Maybe I’m just dumb, but I see this whole thing in more simple terms than most.

    Rudd made some fairly large promises back in 2007, like the education revolution, the health blame game and climate change.

    Rudd disappeared from November until about Australia Day. The reason was that he was seething about his little best boy party being spoiled at Copenhagen. In fact he was SO angry, he wasn’t allowed out just in case some TV Crew gave him a wrong sandwich.

    Rudd wants to punish the Coalition for this in a very big way, at the coming election and it seems that climate change isn’t the most appropriate political issue to do it on.

    It is only around 8 to 9 months to the election, and as we all know, we dumb public can’t absorb too many messages in that short time frame.

    Hence the issue will be Health. He can’t lose politically trying to sell the Australian public a better hospital system. It makes him look like a “conviction” politician, taking on those silly self serving state governments, that have been bungling things from day dot. The Doctor’s seem to like the idea, and whilst the nurses’ union may not, I can’t see them campaigning on Tony Abbott’s behalf.

    But more importantly, he gets to frame the campaign against the Howard Government’s last Health Minister. You know, the guy that had a little tantrum about RU-486, and thought that Federal takeover of Hospitals was a good thing, especially in Tasmania. But apparently not in his own electorate of Pittwater, where his constituents are in danger of losing their much loved hospital.

    So in my mind, it really is that simple. The Mad Monk just cannot take the attack up to the government without looking hopelessly compromised and all over the place on health policy.

    The Government plan to make him look either confused or dishonest, which won’t be hard. Throw is some Son of Workchoices at the fringes (Abbott can thank himself for this), and the Liberals will be wondering what the hell they were thinking, when they let Minchin roll Turnbull.

  4. Riccardo on 7th March 2010 7:28 pm

    No, I take TPS view of this. Sure, there will be short term election strategy for both sides but the long term political weakness of the federation is the issue.

    The High Court basically ruled, during the Workchoices case, that the states had no solid constitution bulwark against the Commonweatlh. The Corporations Power, Dyson, said, ALWAYS allowed the Commonwealth the power to just about run anything it liked.

    Keep in mind, this is Howard’s High Court. A bunch of centralists he put in to destroy the federation. He always said this; his own people never listened when he said this. When asked if he was a New South Welshman, he said no, he was Australian and had never identified with any state.

    So it’s the ersatz GOP we have as our conservatives. True red-blooded American conservatives, paleo-cons, would never have tolerated a grab for power from the centre such as we have seen.

    We’ll know when the project is complete when Rudd calls a press conference, says he’d like to spend more time with the kids. Then campaign for UN Climate Change Commissioner or some such thing.

    Gillard will then get the job, paying back (in the negative sense) all those union cronies she walked over to get the job.

    The other problem in the media is the continued feigned surprise that Gillard cares about spelling and grammar. There’s a meme out there that just because the teachers’ union doesn’t care about them, Gillard also shouldn’t. A non-sequitur, Gillard is controlled by the unions, therefore she shouldn’t care about spelling and grammar. The premise is wrong.

  5. Riccardo on 7th March 2010 7:34 pm

    Sorry not Dyson, Gleeson.

    And famously the case united Kirby, the anti-Howard unionist, and Callanan, the anti-centralist conservative, against Howard.

    I should add that I remember some of the rationale used to apologise for Joh’s underfunding of the Queensland system (apart from clearly being aimed at Aboriginal people) was that Queensland was much more the place where family and friends would gather at the bedside, being such a traditional place – so you didn’t need all the fancy city stuff like proper nursing ratios or medical care. Their nursing home coverage was abismally low too, but different story I suppose.

  6. Paul of Berwick on 7th March 2010 9:54 pm

    Let’s make a broad assumption: Left-wing parties are generally concerned with organising labour (& changing social values), right-wing parties with the power of capital (including the structure of society).

    Now, at its root, if politics is society’s way of organising the factors of production (labour, capital, resources). Then if those factors of production are increasingly irrelevant on a state, and national, level (due to the economy moving toward a service-industry-based model & the mobility of these factors). It follows that the importance of politics in our daily lives will be increasingly irrelevant.

    And what “side” of politics will be hardest hit – the side that “controls” that most mobile factor of production – capital.

    Thus, it could be argued on this basis that the relevance of right-wing politics to today’s society will fade.

    Further, it could also be argued that those living off this “old” order (the fourth estate) will either not want this to happen (by attempting to maintain the relevance of the parties of the right), or fail to see it happening.

  7. Graeme on 7th March 2010 11:25 pm

    Shrike, a fine analysis. Today I stumbled across Mr Abbott’s rather than ‘Battlelines’. An appendix is his Constitutional reform bill. It is pure nationalism over federalism: if House and Senate want it, they can claim any and every power or role of the States they like.

    Rudd thinks he can wedge Abbott on health two ways: 1. you were health minister in an 11 year government, what change did you wring? and 2. you wanted to centralise jurisdiction over hospitals first, how can you oppose my referendum? For its part the Liberals think Rudd will stumble as the politics of this are too dense; it’s not a crash or crash through terrain.

    For the rest of us, it’s just pathetic to watch Rudd beef up the hyper-active, bully-boy rhetoric, to try to counter Tony the Manly Man. It’s schoolyard stuff.

    ps It’s not a necessary consequence of the position of states that they are ‘depoliticised’. It’s as much the convergence of the major parties ideologically (or their lack). For instance, the States still control the guts of criminal law, an area rife for politicking. It’s just that Laura Norder is the default position for both parties: there is politicking, but it’s pollies piggy-backing tabloid values vs the elites.
    Nor need small governmentalities be less
    political: Tasmanian State politics is more ideological than elsewhere, in large part because the Greens have broken through there.

    @ Riccardo. ‘WorkChoices’ case didn’t hand the Commonwealth omnipotence. Public hospitals, public education, local governments – none of them are (or in the case of local governments, need be) corporate entities.

  8. Riccardo on 8th March 2010 9:25 am


    There is an argument being mounted that the public hospitals are directly regulated by the Commonwealth; just that Rudd is choosing the territory of his fight.

    And the states might as well surrender right now and agree to be folded up – if the only weapon they have left is the written word of the consitution, as interpreted by the current High Court.

    Agree with Paul, the need for a ‘means of production’ versus ‘supply of labour’ 2 party political system has passed. As Keating masterfully demonstrated at mid 2007 with Tony Jones. He was the real man saying the emperor had no clothes, in this case, the Coalition’s superior economic management.

    Problem for the right, the GOP has at least turned to foetuses and fearing strange looking men with beards and turbans to keep themselves near power, the religious right in Australia will never have that pull.

    I don’t mind how many beat-ups Fairfax does about Hillsong or whoever, it just doesn’t work in our culture.

    Just as the latest Germanic/Scandinavian fad for organic, free range, carbon neutral deep green politics doesn’t permeate far into our suburbs either.

  9. The Piping Shrike on 8th March 2010 6:25 pm

    I agree that the issue is not really the state government as such, but that it has become a focus for showing up the problem in the major parties and the exhaustion in their program. This is less prominent at the federal level because I think there is still one issue that divides the federal parties (no, it’s not IR) but how to respond to US decline.

    Tad, I agree about the anti-union element to Rudd’s proposals, but did I miss the union response? What has happened to hours in the health system is a reminder that when the question has been asked over the last decade “How can we make the health system work better?” it has usually been code for “How can we make health worker conditions worse?” The anti-union element is also what makes Abbott’s objections even more hollow and forces him to do nothing but side with Premiers, exactly the opposite where he wants to be.

  10. Larry Buttrose on 9th March 2010 7:35 am

    The states can’t die fast enough from my POV Shrike – they are all completely useless. We need to eliminate that wasteful and expensive second tier of government and have national government and enhanced local government. State governments are a ridiculous pre-federal hangover.

  11. Rocket on 10th March 2010 11:47 pm

    When I lived in Queensland (Goss-post-Joh) what struck me most was the lack of infrastructure everywhere. Health, sporting fields, playgrounds, roads, public transport – everything! Everyone at the time loved to say Queensland was the “low tax” state, but it clearly came at a price.

    Isn’t there a famous theory that in a democracy, the people will eventually vote for lower and lower taxes until their nation ceases to exist? Some of the problems in California I think come from this ethos, especially as they have those “citizen initiated ballot measures”.

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