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