“There are two powerful trends in Australia today,” the Prime Minister told us in his Australia Rising speech last month. “Localism and nationalism.”
Does it matter that they’re headed in opposite directions?
The Coalition’s “aspirational nationalism” represents the aspiration of one seat of power to eliminate another. It is the enemy of a genuine localism. It uses the framework provided by the Constitution to reduce state governments to irrelevance. But it puts up nothing in their place which might counter the Commonwealth’s own power.
Mr Howard makes this clear by saying that, in the re-ordered state he describes, his government may “bypass the states altogether and deal with local communities”.
“We should be focused on outcomes, not systems … whatever methods of governance will best deliver those outcomes.”
At one level, the PM is probably sniffing the wind correctly. There is no compelling case for the states per se. People just want services. They don’t much care who delivers them. If the government of Bolivia could get CityRail to work, for example, Sydney-siders would probably vote for it.
But it prompts the question: what are the governance structures of these local communities that the Commonwealth will deal with? And what makes them the best placed to deliver “those outcomes”?
The response is not strong on detail. The government, Mr Howard tells us, has built partnerships with the community sector, business and social entrepreneurs. And he believes government “can support social and community entrepreneurship at the local level”, principally by engaging the voluntary sector.
So where’s the “method of governance” here? The power in every case remains with the interest which had the resources to start with - a government agency, corporatised faith-based charity or the private sector. All are dependent on the Commonwealth in one way or another.
And in a weakened federal system, that government is accountable to - well, nobody it seems. It’s a much-remarked feature of Australian political life that a government has to be more than usually hopeless to lose office.
Paradoxically, the concentration of power is likely to leave a vacuum in those areas of policy in which the central power is not interested or in which the little it does know leaves it unconcerned.
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