Labor Party

The view from Billinudgel

Blame Canberra

Foreground image: Ted Bailleau. Background image: Campbell Newman. © Brian Cassey

An old Australian saying goes: When do you put in the boot? When somebody’s down. Which no doubt explains the all-Australian attack on our hapless prime minister over issues which should be Labor’s strengths: health and education.

Victoria’s Ted Baillieu and Queensland’s Campbell Newman in particular have decided that it’s a good time to distract voter attention from their own shortcomings with a solid bit of Canberra bashing. Their reasoning is probably sound: while they may be getting a bit on the nose, Julia Gillard is clearly now so noisome that she is headed, irrevocably, for the tip.

That being the case, it is a good time to assert their independence by tearing up what slow progress has been made towards national reform in hospitals and schools, and indulging in a bit of parochial breast-beating about how, quite clearly, they can do anything better than Gillard. It is a formula that has worked in the past, as a result of which our cumbersome federal structure has become increasingly unwieldy, with enormous and unnecessary overlaps between the states and the commonwealth.

In the old days, leaving areas such as health and education to the states made a bit of sense: the vast distances involved and lack of reliable communication networks made a centralised administration impractical, and in any case the population was pretty stable; crossing state borders was a major undertaking. But in 2013 neither of these considerations applies; we are able to swap information at the speed of light and travel around the country with ease – indeed, we are constantly urged to do so by the governments themselves.

Uniform standards and a national approach to both funding and oversight have become no-brainers. But all attempts to impose them run into intransigent opposition from the states: after all, if the states did not have health and education, there would be precious little reason left for them to exist at all. And the state politicians and apparatchiks are not about to surrender their powers and privileges without a fight.

So when in doubt blame everything on Canberra and demand more money but insist on keeping total control. In the present situation it will probably work: Gillard’s government is in no position to win a public brawl with anyone, even unpopular premiers. And their thinking is, presumably that when Tony Abbott comes to power, their fellow conservative will leave the status quo as it is.

But they may be wrong. Abbott in the past has shown alarming centralist tendencies himself; indeed, he once proposed a total commonwealth takeover of the hospital system. He was slapped down by John Howard, but after September he could well be unstoppable. And the premiers may find that they have exchanged King Log for King Stork.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

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