It has long been a fundamental article of Labor belief that the federal structure of the Australian nation, along with bicameral legislatures, were put into Australian constitutions to slow or frustrate radical change and Labor agendas.The Commonwealth system is increasingly sclerotic, the politicians less brave, or less focused on good policy, good government and the public interest.
Not for nothing did Paul Keating describe senators as “unrepresentative swill.” Not for nothing have successive prime ministers – but particularly Labor ones – worked hard to establish new forms of cooperative federalism to get around the fact of six states and two territories with the capacity to thwart or sabotage national policies. Not for nothing have would-be constitutional reformers insisted that revolutions in trade, transport and communications have made us one nation now, rather than eight markets each with different laws, regulations and rules.
Perhaps the political events of the pandemic should inspire a Labor re-think. The prime minister, Scott Morrison, perceived the advent of Covid-19 as a national emergency and sought new methods of seeking concerted national action, including by the states and territories in their own areas of responsibility.
The national cabinet, composed of the prime minister, state premiers and territory chief ministers, shared information — at least up to a point — and debated a common national approach, on common principles. Morrison had expected to dominate it, not least with his power of the purse, his own national pulpit, and some capacity to suggest that those who did not cooperate were being un-Australian at a time when we should all be pulling together. In theory, it could have been said to have been a development of a major new Commonwealth push into the practical management of national disasters, such as the 2019-20 bushfire emergency, where Morrison put the ADF into action of his own initiative, rather than through old agreed channels of defence aid to the civil power.
If it looked initially as if a new national unity was being forged, under a great new national leader standing high above the battle, it hardly looks like that now. While premiers and chief ministers were cooperative and constructive in discussion, few were willing to let a national approach override their own best judgment on what was best for citizens of their own bailiwicks. There were initial arguments about school closures and about the time of implementation of particular public health measures.
Premiers were soon making their own decisions about lockdowns, border closures and entry and access of people from other states. A series of local disasters involving quarantine, first in NSW with cruise ships that potentiated the national spread of the disease, and later in Victoria (and to a lesser degree in most of the other states) about the escape of the virus from quarantine hotels, reinforced the feeling that there was no one-size-fits-all policy that could override practical local responses to outbreaks.
Morrison had hoped that the premiers would eschew cheap partisan politics and unite around the national interest. All the world over, politicians who ask for this define the non-partisan approach as their own, and any other view as being contaminated with contemptible political self-interest. But Morrison’s efforts to achieve a national unity around his character, personality and appreciation of events was in any event bound to be treated with suspicion, and not only by premiers from different parties.
Morrison, for one, is a relentless politiciser of almost any issue, and even on trivial matters, he excites anger from his rivals by his non-stop self-promotion, self-marketing and bombast at the expense of substance, his demand for the limelight, compulsive secrecy, resistance to explanation and reluctance to admit the slightest fault. His lack of feel and empathy for victims of the bushfire undermined trust in his judgment. And accentuated doubts about whether he himself could see the problems from any vantage point other than his own.
As Morrison saw it moreover, the Commonwealth alone — and perhaps if only to a limited sense NSW — was juggling two simultaneous problems: protecting the nation from the pandemic, and limiting the economic damage with the hope of declaring victory against the virus and reopening the economy as soon as possible. The premiers, particularly but by no means exclusively the Labor ones, were focused on the disease, and tending to ignore the economic damage, at least while the Commonwealth was pouring in money to protect businesses and the unemployed.
The national cabinet may have achieved some useful things — though hardly anything of a lasting nature — but it has done little to enhance the prestige or the moral authority of the prime minister. Worse, from his point of view, premiers who focused only on the needs of their state, as they saw them, became wildly popular with their electorates. Initially reluctant to personally attack individual premiers, Morrison was happy enough to see them attacked and more or less accused of manslaughter by his ministers, as well as by Liberal Party house organs such as News Ltd. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, the recalcitrant premiers saw confidence in their judgment increase, while the cred of Morrison fell. And that was even before the sequence of disasters with the ordering, supply and distribution of vaccines.
Perhaps some of the stench of the Commonwealth-induced fiascos will subside when vaccines are generally available by year-end, but the memory of the incompetence and mismanagement will persist.
Even the presently hapless Gladys Berejiklian — the person whose initial resistance to lockdown led her to be declared the gold standard in national recovery — may leave the scene of battle with higher popularity and respect than the national leadership.
State premiers — including the Liberal ones — have inflicted more damage on the Morrison government than the federal Labor opposition. It is from that damage that most of the opportunities for Albanese arise.
That is not because federal Labor is not criticising, and not promoting different policies, even if they are increasingly restricted compared with the smorgasbord of 2019. But though polls, for what they are worth, suggest the coalition is losing support, Labor has as yet failed to engage, enthuse or mobilise the electorate in the way the premiers have.
If Labor were to recognise this, it might be worth reviewing some of their old shibboleths about institutional and constitutional constraints on Labor ideas. Labor may be a party of a fundamentally different philosophy of government than the coalition, though I think one would have to work hard to prove this. But with a different approach or not, it no longer has a radical or reform agenda likely to be inhibited by old states’ rights or constitutional obstacles.
Even the Senate has not been a great problem. Over most of the past three decades, Labor has often been able to combine with crossbench parties to limit coalition legislation. It has been far more successful on issues that matter to it than the coalition has been with its own shibboleths.
The Grattan Institute has recently issued a paper on gridlock and barriers to policy reform. Its start-off point is that reform has largely stalled over the past decade — particularly when compared with the Hawke and Keating and later Howard years. The Institute focus is largely economic — and does not cover areas of government such as defence, diplomacy, industrial relations, telecommunications and media policy.
The institute’s review of stalling reform suggests that proposals it had made for change had not failed because they were not in the public interest. The institute has policy expertise, but its reports and proposals have been selected for being in areas “where the key questions do not depend on value judgments that were contested by the two major parties.” It is not a partisan body or dominated by people from one side of politics.
The report suggests that the modern record of reform is often more substantial at the state government level. There’s a tendency to downgrade state politics as being more involved in the delivery of services — schooling, health or policing for example, and less concerned with high matters of policy. Yet it is the policies administered by state governments — schools, hospitals, public health care, law and order, local government services for example, that most affect ordinary Australians. A centralising Commonwealth will often have strong views about all such matters, but, if they lack the guts or persistence, or if the institutions of federalism, such as premiers’ conferences or first ministers cabinets lack the enthusiasm or impetus — there is a good deal that can be achieved by a reforming government — on either side of politics.
With many reforms, states and territories have been well ahead of the Commonwealth. States and territories have standing anti-corruption bodies, if of variable quality. Most have practical anti-discrimination legislation. Two, including the ACT, have Bill of Rights legislation. States and territories are well advanced on the Commonwealth with practical climate change abatement policies, and, generally, with environmental protection, which has significantly fallen back at the Commonwealth level.
It required Commonwealth legislation to give Australians same-sex marriage, but much historically discriminatory practice against minorities has come at the state level. Like with policies on drug reform, on human dignity, including adoption, voluntary euthanasia, as well as patient rights and student rights.
The ACT campaign to have control over euthanasia and assisted dying returned to its own parliament in part because this has been, quintessentially, in a field of state jurisdiction, deserving legislation by politicians accountable to those who are affected. This need not lead to pre-determined outcomes, so much as the ones the local community wants.
State boundaries might need review — although change is very difficult — and the calibre of state politicians may leave something to be desired — although who could say that anymore given the ethical standards, or lack of them, of many Commonwealth leaders and senior bureaucrats. The point is that a person, a potential administrator, a would-be politician — someone who wanted to make the world a better place might be better engaged in working in an environment where at least some change is possible. The Commonwealth system is increasingly sclerotic, the politicians less brave, or less focused on good policy, good government and the public interest.