Beyond The Chaos, Federalism Lives On

The critics of political theatre suggest Anna Bligh has shown successful leadership during the Queensland floods and Cyclone Yasi.

Julia Gillard’s notices have been somewhat less positive. Trying to emote in front of TV cameras, she’s looked wooden. Like Samuel L Jackson in the Star Wars prequels, Gillard is talented but the script gives her nothing work with.

That’s a show of leadership succeeding at the state level, and failing at the federal level.

So aren’t you glad we still have states?

The last few years have seen a chorus of voices claiming the very existence of state governments – therefore the entire basis of Australia’s federal system – is anachronistic, a relic of the colonial era, and the biggest impediment to national reform.

Tony Abbott and Bob Carr are openly dismissive of state government powers. John Howard never saw a centralisation he didn’t like. Neither did Kevin Rudd.

Our opinion and letters columns are littered with complaints about wasteful duplication and how just darn unnecessary those states are.

But in the wake of this year’s natural disasters, perhaps federalism could find a few more friends.

Putting aside the performances of Gillard and Bligh, it would have unthinkable for a federal leader to take responsibility for this month’s disaster efforts: floods in Queensland, Victoria, New South Wales, South Australia, and Tasmania, and floods and bushfires in Western Australia have all had their own characteristics. Affected states have each had separate and specific needs. They require their local leadership and expertise.

Busy with the floods and cyclone in Queensland, a lone prime minister spread too thin would have had to virtually ignore the devastating fires in Western Australia.

The idea of federalism suggests the closer governments are to those they govern the more responsive and representative they will be. State governments can respond better than Canberra. The start of 2011 has surely demonstrated the validity of that claim.

It’s not even an issue of competence. Politically, Anna Bligh’s government has been on the nose all through 2010. But her “bloody awful tough year” – to use the premier’s words in December – was all but forgotten as the waters rose and the storm approached.

And it’s not to say we won’t find Bligh government failures before and during the floods and cyclone. We haven’t heard the last question about the management of the Wivenhoe Dam, or the Queensland Government’s decision to forego insurance.

But decades – hell, a century – of rolling federal government fiascos should leave us in no illusions Canberra could do any better.

Much has been made of the comparison between the natural disasters of 1974 and this year. But bookended by the Brisbane floods in January, and Cyclone Tracy that Christmas, 1974 was also one of the defining moments for the relationship between the Commonwealth government and its state counterparts.

The two disasters came smack bang in the middle of Gough Whitlam’s push to steam roll his agenda over the states. (Malcolm Fraser would later describe a Liberal approach as “new federalism”. Gough’s plans could perhaps be described as “no federalism”.)

No surprise the events of 1974 led to more restructuring in favour of the federal government. A Natural Disasters Organisation was set up after the Brisbane flood. Cyclone Tracy confirmed the Commonwealth’s pre-eminent position. As the director of operations and plans in the Natural Disasters Organisation recalled, it was these twin disasters which gave the “impetus to the development of legislation and new arrangements for states and territories”.

Unsurprisingly, the reconstruction of Darwin (the Northern Territory was already under Commonwealth administration) was plagued by delay and indecision. Budgets blew out. Accusations of bureaucratic empire-building were thrown around. The Darwin Reconstruction Commission fantasised about building a “Canberra of the North”.

Where state powers were eroded after 1974, perhaps the aftermath of January 2011 will bring us, slightly, back the other way.

Gillard’s uninspiring attempt at leadership might give some small reason to hope for the future of federalism.

After all, Canberra’s failures are federalism’s last remaining defence.

The Prime Minister coincidentally suggested over the weekend she would be pulling back on Kevin Rudd’s grandiose health reforms; reforms which were to place Canberra squarely in the centre of our health system.

Queensland – poor Queensland – which had embraced Rudd’s reforms with open arms, will likely now have to keep responsibility for their own hospital system, just like all the other states.

The parameters of this cut-back health reform will be debated at COAG next Monday.

But there’s no doubt Gillard is looking to take health reform off her prime ministerial plate. Rudd’s plans to have the Commonwealth assume the vast bulk of responsibility for health and hospitals are being abandoned.

Federalism is the structure of government which the designers of Australia’s constitution intended. That structure has been battered down for a century.

But right now our Commonwealth Government is uninspiring, unloved and, completely unable to pursue its own policy goals. Federalism may have some life in it yet.