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Last updated on June 15th, 2017 at 01:35 pm
Australia’s prime minister, John Howard, recently put forward the idea that more power should be given to the Federal government and taken away from the States:
There are times when tensions can arise within Australian liberalism’s traditional commitment to limited government. This Government recognises that dispersal of power is basic to our philosophy. But so is leaning against an over-governed Australia – something that can become all too apparent in a federal system with eight Labor governments.
This is a pretty amazing development, and I’d be interested to hear what American conservatives think of this bid to centralize power.
It’s very funny to watch the man who argued so strongly and successfully against an Australian Republic now arguing for this change and watching most of the right fall in line behind him.
That is, having decided that an Australian as head of state was too big a risk to Constitutional stability, that tradition and good governance required that we keep a bunch of inbred Poms at the top of our Constitutional tree, the prime minister has now decided that that whole Federalism thing can go. You know, the basic governmental structure of the nation.
Suggest for a minute that this has anything to do with a power grab, that it mysteriously appears as a goal when every state government is of a different political hue to that of the prime minister, and that it is voiced at precisely the moment the Federal Government is about to get control of the Senate, and no doubt the clever dicks on the right will label you a Howard hater.
As they always do in the absence of, you know, an actual argument.
Mr Howard dresses up his centralizing plans in the rhetoric of giving more freedom to individuals. Of course he does. But it’s a pretty funny idea that allows individual freedom to be equated with a more powerful central government. Even his line about Australia being over-governed is pure wind in that he doesn’t want to lessen the role of government per se, just shift some of the functions currently fulfilled by States to the Federal government in Canberra.
I’m just trying to imagine George W. Bush arguing that he is going to give more freedom to Americans by increasing the power of Washington.
Unlike some on the left, however, I don’t think Mr Howard is being particularly hypocritical in this power grab. Although he has previously criticized Labor governments for their use of the external powers clause of the constitution (a way for the federal government to override State responsibilities in certain areas) he has always been a control freak. Just look at how he runs his own office, not to mention his government, the most one-person-centric government in Australian history.
So having assumed more power to himself than any previous prime minister, it is hardly surprising that he is looking to other sources to sate him.
Mr Howard’s real problem, then, is not hypocrisy but hubris.
And nothing quite says hubris like I’m going to usurp some of the powers of the States. John Howard has clearly figured that he is unbeatable for the time being and that he can therefore do pretty much as he likes. This is not only apparent in the end-of-Federalism push but in the mounting string of broken promises that he casually deploys.
(Still, who knows, now that he is creating a fiefdom in Canberra, he might actually decide to live there.)
Personally, I’m of the view that government power should be dispersed and that federalism is a good way of achieving that goal. The risks of over-government are best addressed in limiting the powers of all governments, not by concentrating power to the center. We could begin, for instance, by rethinking the tax code and, oh I don’t know, getting governments out of our bedrooms and off our bodies.
Not everyone on the left has a problem with allowing the federal government to assume more power, for pretty much the reasons—oh irony—that Mr Howard outlines. And even I would agree that there is a case for rethinking the division of powers.
But Mr Howard’s little plan is not for such a rethink, simply for a shift of function from one level of government to another.
Still, if it is going to happen then we have to deal with it, and all in all there seems to be only one sensible reaction for the Labor party and those in the broader left to take: complete compliance.
If John Howard wants to concentrate political power in the federal government, then I think we (the broad left) should embrace the move as our own. Despite what Howard and his rather short-sighted, power-grabbing core supporters might think, the Libs are not going to be in power forever and it would be very nice, Labor should argue, to have all that centralized power waiting for them when eventually they return to government. Even if its ten years hence.
Then, when that (Labor) government starts implementing a whole lot of policies that the right hates, we mean-hearted lefties will have the added satisfaction of being able to say that they couldn’t have done it without the help of the overweening hubris of little Johnny.
Sounds sweet to me.
The point I’m making is that, if you don’t want people of a different ideological persuasion to yourself getting extra powers then you have to oppose such plans even when they are proposed by your side.
The question that arises, then, is this: Are there any honest conservatives out there who will call this power-grab for what it is and condemn the prime minister for his hubris?