The Meter’s Running As Canberra Eyes States’ Powers

Reorganisation, wrote journalist Charlton Ogburn, is a wonderful way of creating the illusion of progress.

So last week the Federal Government decided that we need “nationally consistent” taxi standards. It is concerned that the geography and language tests given to taxi drivers are slightly different in Victoria and, say, Queensland.

For 108 years our federal system has been trying to divvy up tasks between the Commonwealth and the states. In Canberra’s view, it’s time to give a little bit more of that up: those states can no longer be trusted with taxis.

It’s trivial, but hardly the only trivial issue the Federal Government wants to take over. Disability parking permits is another. Not only does the Commonwealth want every state to have the same eligibility rules, but even the design of parking permits needs to be indistinguishable from Broome to Launceston.

But why? It’s hard to think of a less national issue. Permits from one state are completely and unambiguously recognised in other states. So couldn’t Canberra just leave that one for them to sort out? But no, the Federal Government wants to make sure every permit includes a Southern Cross logo and map of Australia, just in case someone wants to take their disabled parking permit overseas.

Perhaps it would be best if we just cut out the middleman and let the United Nations handle it.

Not everything the Federal Government wants to take over is so petty. In July, the National Health and Hospitals Reform Commission argued that the Commonwealth should be responsible for large swathes of the health system.

We could go on. Kevin Rudd wants Canberra to be in charge of urban planning. The Preventive Health Taskforce wants Canberra to set bottleshop opening hours. The Greens want Canberra to be in charge of pokies licensing.

But where on earth does everybody get this faith in the Federal Government? Why does everybody assume Canberra will succeed where states have failed? The Commonwealth Government has, after all, racked up its fair share of failures.

There’s hardly a more obvious example than the Education Revolution. The Government’s election pledge to give every school one computer per child has, after two years, delivered just 154,933 of the 820,000 promised. At this rate, it will be a promise for the next election too.

Failure abounds in Canberra. It was the Immigration Department that lost Cornelia Rau, and kicked Australian citizen Vivian Alvarez Solon out of the country. And remember GroceryChoice?

Nevertheless, most Federal Government absurdities come out of the Defence Department. Recall the Collins-class submarines. Or the joint strike fighter program, now two years behind schedule. Defence is not even sure it wants it any more.

Oh, and each plane is now twice the price. Don’t dwell on it too much, but in 2005 the army apparently ran out of ammunition.

Nevertheless, dragging policy away from the states – let’s call it Canberra-isation – seems to have become for many federal ministers the whole purpose of going into politics in the first place.

In a way, it’s our fault.

Young politicians might run for Federal Parliament because they have ideas for foreign relations, or a grand scheme for economic policy. But local campaigns always come down to local issues. Aspiring foreign affairs ministers will quickly find themselves campaigning on issues such as graffiti vandals, or lights at a local intersection.

Terry Moran, head of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, threatened last week that if the states did not do more of what Canberra wants, “the future direction of the federation will change” – the Commonwealth will seize even more stuff.

State and territory ministers are now preparing for the meeting of the Council of Australian Governments on December 7.

If Moran’s comments are anything to go by, they should expect a haranguing about how their states are insufficiently obedient to Rudd. But as they sit down opposite their Commonwealth counterparts next month, the states need to ask themselves one simple question: why should we listen to these clowns?