It might not seem like it right now, but there’s more to Australian politics than emissions trading schemes and “climate action”.
On the day after Tony Abbott defeated Malcolm Turnbull, one newspaper reported a punter saying the new opposition leader would be “alright, provided he does something about education, health and more police”.
Problem is: none of these are federal government responsibilities.
A cliché of Australian politics is that the Liberal Party is supposed to do better at a federal level than the ALP, because federal policy areas play to its strengths – the economy, defense, and border security. And Labor is supposed to do better in the states, because that’s where the responsibility for social policy lies, most notably health and education.
This is the “Mummy Party, Daddy Party” theory of Australian politics.
But many of the most interesting and innovative potential policy ideas the Coalition could readily adopt aren’t federal issues. They’re state ones.
Education vouchers, for example, would be a genuine education revolution. Vouchers would completely decouple the public funding of education from the public provision of education, giving students and parents the inestimable benefits of choice, efficiency and quality improvement.
Similarly, local community control of hospitals would really mix things up, but again, like education, health is supposed to be a state responsibility.
All this makes it more egregious that the Coalition’s state counterparts are struggling to differentiate themselves from the governments they are trying to oppose.
Federally, the choice for Liberal policymakers is therefore to either abandon one of their fundamental principles – federalism and the respect for Australia’s constitutional system – or leave these policy innovations to the states.
The Howard Government chose the former, culminating in the Commonwealth takeover of Mersey Hospital in 2007. The government’s aim for Mersey was laudable. Once Canberra took control, the hospital would actually be run by a local community trust.
Tony Abbott was of course the Minister who oversaw this, and in his book Battlelines he provides a defense of centralisation while proclaiming he’d like to do a hell of a lot more of it.
But the biggest problem with the Howard/Abbott approach to federalism is that it can backfire, and backfire badly. You might institute the most freedom-focused, liberal policy reform imaginable, but the next mob might have different ideas.
Take WorkChoices. It ended up being a dog of a piece of legislation, but the original intent of WorkChoices was to liberalise Australian workplaces. The only way the federal government could achieve that goal was by having Canberra assume responsibility for industrial relations.
All well and good – until you lose an election. Then you have to the pass the reins of government over to those who have sworn to reregulate the labour market, and now have the power to do so on a national level, all thanks to you.
Few voters know or care about which policy areas are the responsibility of which level of government. Local campaigns for federal seats often deal with comically petty issues.
In the recent federal by-election in Higgins, the Liberal candidate argued that the Ashburton police station was undermanned, and that Chapel Street should have more CCTV cameras.
It’s not their fault. Everyone in the federal parliament has, at one time, campaigned on issues which they have absolutely no control over. Voters seem to demand it – a young politician might want to talk about foreign policy and ballooning government debt, but a lot of people just want to hear about graffiti and street signs.
Nevertheless, the widespread lack of interest in Australian Constitution’s divisions of power does create a problem for the Coalition. At the federal level, it has to decide whether to trade away its commitment to federalism for the opportunity to push liberal reform.
Tony Abbott made this deal with the devil a long time ago.
But, in a strange way, the disregard Abbott has for the niceties of Australian federalism is the fault of his state colleagues. The centre-right has genuinely innovative policy prescriptions ready for advocacy and implementation.
But state Liberal oppositions have been extremely risk averse. State politicians wouldn’t propose a policy anywhere near as radical as Abbott’s local control of hospitals.
Right now, the “small target” strategy adopted by many state oppositions seems a lot better than the “colossal flashing neon target” strategy of the federal opposition.
Election after election has shown that just because a state government is demonstrably incompetent, that’s no guarantee voters will turn to the opposition for relief.
State oppositions are going to have to embrace innovative reform in health and education, at least if they want to present an alternative to ALP governments.
Australia has experienced two decades of federal reform and policy innovation. If the Liberal Party is going to lead the next reform movement, it will probably have to do so in the states.