“That Canberra is taking too much power from the states”
- At 11 March 2008
- medium Opinion
Speech against the proposition at a debate organized by the Socratic Forum
Australian National University, 11 March 2008
I have been asked to speak against the proposition.
In the sweep of human history we can identify a great trend. As humans progress their consciousness becomes less parochial, their moral horizons expand to take in the interests of those in the next region, the whole nation and ultimately the world. It is the evolution of a cosmopolitan consciousness.
The process at times meets resistance, as was the case with Hansonism in this country and forms of Islamic and Christian fundamentalism elsewhere; but ultimately it is unstoppable.
The emergence of a cosmopolitan consciousness has paralleled another great trend in history – the rise of environmental consciousness.
At the time of federation, the residents of one state were indifferent to how residents of another used their land, water and atmosphere. Today, Queenslanders are stealing water from South Australians and brown-coal generators in Victoria are damaging the climate for all Australians, indeed, all citizens of the world.
The physical spillovers are matched by psychological ones that dissolve state borders. In the 1980s people in Sydney realized they cared deeply about the damming of Lake Pedder, and those in Melbourne felt they had an interest in the environmental values of Kakadu National Park, which were threatened by mining.
The plan to dam the Franklin River – which Tasmanian Liberal premier Robin Gray called a leech-ridden ditch – was stopped only by federal intervention on behalf of all Australians. The Gray Government kept on building, so Attorney-General Gareth Evans authorised spy flights by the RAAF over the Franklin. In a storm of criticism, Evans offered what he called the streaker’s defence: “It seemed, your worship, like a good idea at the time”.
The High Court subsequently ruled that the river, which had been included under an international convention, could not be dammed, a decision that represented a far-reaching and entirely justified extension of Commonwealth power.
Who regrets that now, other perhaps than Robin Gray and a few members of the Samuel Griffith Society, whose foremost objective is “to oppose the further centralisation of power in Canberra”. I have noticed that the men and women who have been most prominent in the campaign of climate change denial are also prominent in the conferences of the Samuel Griffith Society.
Why is it that those who most passionately defend the federal system seem to have as much contempt for environmentalism as they do for “Canberra”? Why do the terms “states rights” and “red-neck” go together so comfortably?
While the Franklin Dam case represented a power shift to the Commonwealth in the teeth of fierce opposition from a state government, the truth is that most of the power shift has reflected, not the power-hunger of the Commonwealth, but the desire of the states to offload responsibilities. The wave of privatisations can be understood this way.
The states have been eager to cede power to Canberra in exchange for more Commonwealth bounty. Recall that all Labor premiers were quite happy to give up a range of taxing powers to Mr Howard in exchange for GST money.
More money and less responsibility is the dream of every premier. Governing is hard work and liable to make you unpopular. Just look at the Iemma Government in NSW, which seems to have decided to stop governing altogether.
Speaking to the Samuel Griffith Society, Geoffrey Blainey conjured up one of the enduring bogey-men of Australian politics – the spectre of “Canberra”. The word “Canberra”, usually uttered with a sneer, has become short-hand for an alien power, remote from the concerns of real people and bent on subjugating them.
For those of us who live in and understand Canberra, this is not even a caricature, for a caricature must have a grain of truth at its core.
The word “Canberra” is derived from the Ngunnawal word meaning meeting place. Incidentally, when in 1913 it was announced that the new capital of Australia would be named “Canberra”, the San Francisco Bulletin reported that Australians were
“considerably agitated” because, according to a “noted Queensland authority” on Aboriginal names, the word means “laughing jackass”. It seems that the authority, a Mr Meston, confused Canberra with kookaburra.
Over the decades, Canberrans have become cautious about accepting the opinions of noted Queensland authorities. Take, for example, one of the strongest defenders of states rights in our history, Joh Bjelke-Petersen. He resolved to go to Canberra to drive out those pulling down the fortress of federalism. Instead he wrecked the Liberal Party. Since Sir Joh’s crusade in 1987 federalism’s wreckers have gone much further. Indeed, one authority, Professor Greg Craven, has declared that we are now in the “midst of an ideological struggle for the Constitution’s soul”.
I’m not sure constitutions have souls, but if our objective is to promote a more democratic form of government, and thereby to protect the people from the undue and unaccountable exercise of power, then attempting to strengthen in the 21st century a structure built in the 19th century is to resist the tide of history. The federal system is awkward and anachronistic; the only plausible defence of it is the streaker’s one: it seemed like a good idea at the time.
Rather than standing in the way of history, we should accept the natural process of centralization of power in Canberra but balance that process with the decentralisation of power within Canberra.
The severest threat to democracy and the protection of rights in Australia is not the weakening of the states but the strangulation of federal parliament by the iron grip of party discipline. If the main parties allowed greater expression of the diversity of views that each encompasses – as is the case in the United States and the Britain – we would have a more robust democracy.
Instead, over the last 20 years under the influence of factional oligarchs who dispense patronage in exchange for loyalty, we have witnessed a sharp increase in the power of the executive and the sinking into irrelevance of the parliament itself.
I would sooner entrust the safety of my human rights to Petro Georgiou than Michael Costa, although I should acknowledge the admirable defence of those rights mounted by my honourable opponent Simon Corbell.
Which brings me to my last observation.
However much Australians who live outside the Australian Capital Territory may accuse residents of Canberra of being a remote and cosseted elite, any examination of the data collected by the Australian Bureau of Statistics will show that Canberrans are far from the image of popular prejudice. The statistics show that Canberrans are more open-minded, educated, creative and cosmopolitan than the average Australian.
Canberrans have created a city that is considerably more equal than any other in Australia. You will not find here the extremes of wealth and poverty that blight other cities. In Canberra you will find much less elitism and snobbery.
This city is the closest our nation has come to a classless society. It maintains a meritocratic culture that has been eroded elsewhere by obscene executive salaries, huge concentrations of wealth, and stratification associated with the spread of expensive private schools and the old boys’ network.
Canberra is an immigrant city, one that has always attracted people committed to higher principles of public service rather than the money-grubbing and status-seeking that characterise other metropolises.
It is often said that Canberra does not reflect the “real” Australia. Is that the real Australia to be found in the leafy avenues of Mosman or Kew, where the self-obsessed power elites of Sydney and Melbourne live? Are the grubby streets and choked roads of the state capitals a better representation of the “real Australia” than the gum trees and sheep paddocks that define Canberra?
The public servants who advise the Federal government, and implement its programs, embody these qualities of Canberra. They are smarter, more cosmopolitan and more egalitarian in their outlook. In short, they are a better class of mandarin.
In closing, therefore, let us no longer be a motley collection of sandgropers, crow-eaters, cane toads, cockroaches and Mexicans, but unite as Australians one and all. Even better, let us dispense with the states and set out to make the whole of the nation in the image of this peerless city, Canberra.