The view from Billinudgel

State of the states
State governments are taking action where the federal government has failed

The idea of states’ rights used to be a permanent shibboleth of Australian politics, particularly on the conservative side.

It was taken as a given that the federal constitution was no more than a necessary evil to empower the central government to a bare minimum of what was needed to make the Commonwealth viable: the states – the former colonies – were the supreme arbiters, retaining everything that they could get their hands on and sometimes rather more.

Thus for more than 50 years we had the ridiculous situation where separate railway gauges ended at the borders, making passengers and goods change trains in the middle of the night if they were to proceed.

The reform process, pushed along by High Court decisions, helped a bit, but Liberal politicians remained defiant: states rights ruled until well into the second half of the 20th century. It was not until the advent of John Gorton as prime minister that there was real progress, and what was called Gortonism – meaning centralism – had much to do with his downfall.

But in recent days something of a revolution has taken place: the states – especially the Labor states – are fighting to decentralise and the Commonwealth – especially the conservative government – is fiercely resisting the counterinsurgency.

Various premiers have finally despaired of the torpor of the Turnbull administration. It seems to have no national plan, apart from meaningless slogans about jobs, growth and innovation, all of which have been stalled by lack of any serious initiatives. So the states have begun to go it on their own.

It started last year with the demand for genuine tax reform; that got nowhere, but now even Liberals like New South Wales’s Mike Baird are demanding that the hitherto taboo subject of negative gearing for investment property be put back on the table.

With a firm denial of movement on the climate change front in Canberra, the states have moved to set their own targets, and have now begun suggesting that the bogey man of emissions trading might have to be tried on a state basis in the face of Commonwealth obduracy.

And now some are starting to talk about the idea of treaties with their Indigenous citizens. All of them have now accorded recognition of Aboriginal Australians in their respective constitutions. (This is admittedly a simpler process than the tortuous referendum with which Turnbull is half-heartedly attempting to wrangle.) But they are now proposing that more can be done; while the process in Canberra drags on, some are claiming that it is time to prepare for the next step.

Turnbull and his bureaucrats are dismayed: they warn that going too far and too fast might derail the idea even of the conservative’s grudging formula of recognition. But many Indigenous leaders have always held that treaties were the real goal, and state premiers are quite capable of dong two things at the same time.

They can both chew gum and fart. The worry has been that Turnbull and his recalcitrant right-wingers are willing to do neither.

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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