Isn’t less government what the conservatives really want?

The commonwealth has unraveled, federation has unfederated. So why aren’t the Tories cheering?

For Australia’s hard-line, copper-bottomed, hide-bound conservatives, federation was always a mistake.

Fighting the good fight against the centralists of Canberra is not just a political imperative – it is a holy crusade, less a case of state rights than states rites. So they should be rejoicing when the premiers, emboldened by their inclusion in the so-called national cabinet, have taken the logical next step: states riots.

They now give only token acknowledgment to the consensus wistfully expected by Scott Morrison in his attempts to secure a united front in the battle against coronavirus and, more importantly it seems, removing the restrictive measures that give the battle of chance of success.

There is a vague, indeed meaningless, commitment to the idea that it would be nice if they were out by Christmas, the pious hope of the British when they entered the Great War of 1914, as many have cynically mentioned. But in practice it is every state – and territory – for itself. The commonwealth has unraveled, federation has unfederated. So why aren’t the Tories cheering?

Well, partly because even they know that there are some things which really should be the purview of the national government. The concept of provincial armies, while no doubt appealing to the feudalists, is hardly suited to modern times. So even most of the reactionaries accept the reality of 1901 and all that.

There is the odd (seriously odd) denial Joh Bjelke-Petersen once declared: “There is no such thing as Australia. I am the premier of the sovereign state of Queensland and I know whereof I speak.” This was particularly demented given that he had himself chosen Australian nationality, having been born in New Zealand.

But most conservatives are content to rail against what they see as the increasing encroachment of the feds. Which is why it is curious that they have been very quiet to applaud the premiers (admittedly most of them Labor) when they have taken their own stand for autonomy and independence.

Morrison, of course, has been more than somewhat selective when choosing his targets. Annastacia Palaszczuk has received a good kicking for not allowing a bereaved woman to attend a funeral, even ringing the Queensland premier to demand what he called compassion.

Coming from Morrison, this is risible chutzpah: Unfortunate, obviously, but one of countless tragedies and in any case a decision of the chief medical officer, not the purview of any politician, however senior. And there is a state election looming. Whatever it takes.

But the big shellacking is, as always, for Daniel Andrews, to be blamed for everything, now and forever. And it will go on remorselessly for weeks to come, because Morrison must unveil a budget in three weeks., and the prospect is not good.

Unless there is some leak-proof bonanza we do not expect, there will be little to rejoice about as we move into the holiday season. Tax cuts, but mainly for those who do not really need them and will not use them for the common good. A raft of big-ticket infrastructure which will not click in for many months and which may crowd out projects which are already underway.

And that, apart from the usual waffle about cutting red, green or any other coloured tape and tweaking industrial relations laws, will be about it. Disappointment and disillusionment will be inevitable, so ramp up the blame game.

And even without the confected pile up from the Murdoch media, as the details are belatedly teased out it is clear that Andrews deserves a share – but only a share, and probably less than is due to Morrison and his feds. But then, so does Gladys Berejiklian, Morrison’s gold standard home state premier.

New South Wales has been reasonably competent, but also lucky. In general, the premier’s procedures for tackling COVID have been adequate and have worked pretty well, although it is a long way from over. But like everyone else, including Morrison, she has been constantly inconsistent and confusing about what is on and off and why and where and when.

And again like Morrison, she has not been helped by some of the drongos surrounding her.  Step forward, John Barilaro, whose bluff, bluster and bullshit threatened to derail a government because he wanted to bulldoze his way through the remaining habitat of endangered cuddly marsupials.

Barilaro backed down, declaring victory – the premier will bring the issue to cabinet when she is good and ready, just as she always intended. Whether this will satisfy his gullible followers, let alone his Liberal coalitionists, is to be seen, but it has to be highly improbable. And at least the koalas got a reprieve.

Like most National politicians, Barilaro is the flimsiest of paper tigers. His only weapon is to withdraw from the coalition, and any rational person – and even his own party colleagues – know that is not really an option.

The only time it works is if the ultimatum is serious and the last man to make it stick was Black Jack McEwen, the leader who vetoed Billy McMahon as prime minister (but later relented) and even cowered Robert Menzies after a couple of memorable showdowns. Malcolm Turnbull surrendered to Barnaby Joyce over same sex marriage and climate change, but Malcolm Turnbull was never one for a fight anyway.

There was a time when at least some Nats were serious about taking an independent stance: in Victoria, they even went into coalition with Labor for a brief period. But those days are long gone. Now they accept their subordinate role and just hoover up the perks of office. Just as Barilaro hoped to do last week.

This fiasco is, presumably, what the conservatives want when they talk about the splendours of devolving power, giving the states free rein to do their own things in the name of restraining the national administration from becoming too arrogant and unaccountable. Well, it seemed a good idea at the time.

But if you think the feds are often a bit second rate, have a look at this mob. The case for removing the middle layer of government, going directly from the commonwealth to an enhanced system of local government, has seldom been stronger. And isn’t less government what the conservatives really want?

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Mungo MacCallum is a veteran political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy.

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