There are several moves in train right now which suggest a major shift towards the re-structure of the Australian political system: the partial take-over of hospital funding and addition health services; and the announcement of a draft national curriculum. Announcements have also been made on reforming the federal funding arrangements of tertiary education.
Senior journalists, like Mike Steketee (The Australian, March 6, 2010) and Michael Lund (The Courier-Mail, March 5, 2010), refer to polls that show that about 70 to 80 per cent of voters welcome these steps. Cautious but unmistakable support is coming from State Premiers and individual Ministers, like, for example, Carmel Tebbutt (Health) in New South Wales. Tebbutt strongly argued against the reintroduction of the old separate local hospital boards. Rudd aims at around 180 local hospital networks - of a regional nature - devolving responsibility to those who are actually caring for patients. These networks would be the administrative unit directly funded by the national government. Provided doctors and nurses are to be given adequate local decision-making powers this plan looks like a sensible application of the subsidiarity principle.
All the moves are not ideologically motivated. It is the logical outcome of the (crisis) situation in our health and education sectors that propels the actions, at last.
Around the nation we hear the joyful strains that the states are on the way out! So all Australians - let us rejoice. Instead of endlessly finding fault, as is often the Opposition leader's refrain, the time has come for the entire nation to move on and replace federation.
Even so, there are the vested interests of state politicians, state agencies, state civil servants and some academics whom, for whatever reason, have been telling us that federation really is the best thing for Australia.
Amazingly, as long ago as 2005 Tony Abbott argued in favour of transferring state hospital funding and administration to the federal government! As an after dinner speaker at the Reform or Rescue Conference organised by Griffith University's Centre for federalism and the IPAA in October 2008, which I attended, Abbott made a surprisingly strong plea for the abolition of states. Abbott should get his act together and pledge support for a great shake-up of the Australian Constitution!
If he seeks to score as Opposition leader he should come up with some brilliant implementation plans to achieve this rather than negative oppositionism. This is an immensely important task and as a former Health Minister he is well placed indeed to do just that.
For the Rudd Government, action on hospital and health reform is a sea change. The critical issue is to have proper implementation plans in place for transition towards well worked out alternatives, in health and education to begin with. Other public policy areas could follow. As Mike Steketee argued "Health could prove terminal for the states". This should not be a matter of regret, as former NSW Premier Bob Carr has tended to argue on a number of occasions. There are major problems on many federal-state fronts. Most Australians would say that this represents long overdue progress.
The rushed roof insulation exercise may well have presented the Rudd Government with an important valuable lesson. Implementation must be done properly and cannot be left to those who know little about what they are supposed to do. At last this is where COAG could contribute something of particular value if re-directed and staffed properly. Thus we may come to see "co-operation to END federalism" instead of "co-operative federalism"!
And what about those (many) who have long argued for alternatives but were steadfastly ignored, often ridiculed, or told "this is too difficult”, "impossible", "cannot be done" and "Australians are too conservative"? Clearly, Mr Rudd may well have concerns about persuading the states - a task he has embarked on but only in relation to health and hospital reform. There certainly needs to be an overall strategic plan of what is to be created instead and how that is to be implemented. Critics question the creation of regional hospital networks on the grounds that it would add another layer of bureaucracy. This potentially valid criticism then begs the question: why aim for only 60 per cent or 70 per cent of a complete take-over instead of going all the way? Why not remove the states entirely from this function?
Extrapolating from this logically leads to a discussion of replacing all state functions. A two-tier system based on national government and (a much improved) local government would seem to have the edge over all other proposals based on regional governments. The advantage of national and local is that regions can be created as administrative adjunct structures either by the (elected) national government or by clusters of (elected) local governments. A mezzanine layer of regions can be based on the many criteria that are used to justify regional governance: population, resources, density, bio-diversity, geography, history, functional effectiveness and political considerations. That creates a flexible situation, exactly what is needed in practice. The Regional Organisation of Councils in Australia already presents the making of such arrangements. What we also need in Australia is better decentralisation, away from the states, and de-urbanisation instead of trying to push more people in the fast growing, already overcrowded cities with all their transport problems. Replacing federation can and must deliver on those key objectives.
The writing has very long been on the wall for the states, indeed ever since the centralisation of income tax powers in 1942. It was even predicted as early as 1901 when Alfred Deakin, the second PM, predicted that "the Commonwealth would increase in stature, in financial dominance, and in the determination of national priorities".
Many intermediate steps have already been taken by creatively interpreting the inflexible Federal Constitution. Hawke stopped the Franklin below Gordon Dam by using the external affairs power. Howard took over the states' industrial relations powers by calling on the corporation power. There is a long list of friction and duplication areas thrown up during the past decade as federal-state issues crying out for resolution. Really, hasn't the time come to re-write Constitution altogether? As the well-known constitutional law professor Cheryl Saunders has argued, there really is a limit to what today's judges can reasonably interpret from what was written by the "Founding Fathers" in 1900.
Can Australian governments do that in one go and get the people on side by means of a number of plebiscites, a very convenient and educational device hardly used in Australia? Piecemeal tinkering is just not going get us anywhere in this endeavour.
But, in the end, is it not the people who should exercise their sovereignty to decide on the ground rules of their society? This is an exercise that cries out for major party co-operation rather than oppositionism. Incredibly, Tony Abbott can play a leadership role here from the Opposition benches by pushing for what he argued so convincingly in Tenterfield, the very place where Henry Parkes launched his campaign for federation in 1889.