Premiers’ Conferences used to be so simple.
The night before, the six premiers would arrive in Canberra, check into the old Canberra Hotel and have quite a few drinks as they waited for the Commonwealth to produce its offer of money. They would then have quite a few more drinks.
Next morning, outraged and hungover, they would troop across to Parliament House to complain that it wasn’t enough. When their complaints had been recorded for their home-town media, they would start haggling. The Commonwealth would grudgingly respond and the premiers would accept in time for dinner, before, during and after which they would have quite a few more drinks.
They would then return home next day proclaiming their victory over the skinflints of Canberra, and trusting that the morning headline would be “Premier Wins Raise” rather than the more accurate “Premier Drinks Grant”. Good, predictable, harmless fun.
But with the advent of the GST it all changed – at least it was meant to. The GST gave the states what they had always wanted – a growth tax, a source of funds independent of the Commonwealth. Premiers Conferences became COAG, the Council of Australian Governments, and were given the loftier aim of reforming the whole commonwealth-state process, eliminating overlaps and improving co-operation and efficiency. The undignified scramble for cash was to be replaced by sober and selfless statesmanship, and the air was to be full of porcine aviators.
Of course, in practice Paul Keating’s old dictum: “Never stand between a premier and a bucket of money” still applies, as we saw just last week. Julia Gillard went to the COAG meeting with a list of proposals for reform. The premiers went with their begging bowls. Barry O’Farrell from New South Wales was the only one even willing to commit to the National Disability Insurance Scheme – the rest just wanted the money.
Not one had a single suggestion about policy initiatives or about improving the system – as always, they left that to Canberra. Their sole contribution to the body politic was to cry poor. Ten years ago they got the great big new tax on almost everything that they said was their goal, but, like Oliver Twist (and the Greens, and the Independents and for that matter the voters) they always want more.
And as for co-operation – forget it. Queensland’s Campbell Newman would not even agree to uniform legislation to allow female succession to the monarchy, insisting that his sovereign state would pass its own laws in its own way, thank you. Increasingly the man appears to be channelling his predecessor Joh Bjelke-Petersen who once stunned a London audience by declaring: “There is no such place as Australia. I am the Premier of the sovereign state of Queensland and I know whereof I speak.”
Federation may have taken place in 1901, but such radical concepts come slowly to the sunshine colony.