13 Jan 2017 • The Australian, Australia
by John Pesutto

Bob Hawke is wrong – the second tier of government performs a vital role

O! let us have him; for his silver hairs

Will purchase us a good opinion

And buy men’s voices to commend our deeds.

So, in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Metellus says of Cicero, a famous Roman.

It’s easy to see why Bob Hawke is a Labor icon. He is a distinguished Australian. Growing up in the 1980s, I remember Hawke dominating not only politics but much of our culture.

The manner of his prime ministership ending in 1991 can too easily cast a shadow over four election victories, matched or exceeded only by two other very distinguished Australians in John Howard and Robert Menzies, two greatly admired Liberal icons. One therefore would not reject lightly Hawke’s assertions on any matter. But it is important to contest his most recent call for the states to be abolished.

In fairness to Hawke, abolition of the states has been a position he has long countenanced with strong convictions. Since his 1979 Boyer Lectures, if not earlier, Hawke frequently has addressed whether we should keep the states and suggested that their functions should be reposed in the commonwealth and larger local or regional governments.

Hawke’s latest comments on the subject were made recently at the Woodford Folk Festival, during which he said: “What we have today – as I have said before basically represents the meanderings of British explorers across the Australian continent more than 200 years ago. They wandered around, and lines were drawn on a map, and jurisdiction and governance followed. So you have 13 parliaments (including senates) dealing with much the same issues and I believe that the simple fact is the states should be abolished.”

At the same festival a year before, Hawke contended that state boundaries were “bloody absurd” and that having only a national government and local governments would improve Australian democracy: “I made this proposition once that the states were quite artificial creations that were just represented by lines on a map, there was no intrinsic merit in that at all.”

It’s time, however, that adherents of the “abolish the states” school come to accept that such calls miss the point and dodge the vexed issue of what constitutes good government by the states. Public apathy, and in many parts of our country significant disaffection with political leadership, has nothing to do with whether we retain the three levels of government we have or replace them with two much larger tiers of government.

It should all depend on whether each level of government federal, state and local – is delivering sound political leadership, responsible management of public money and effective service delivery to those in need.

Apart from the formidable constitutional obstacles, abolishing the states would not relieve the remaining tiers of government of the burden of managing our various law enforcement, public transport, health and education systems.

Do we really think that in abolishing the states we would realise any net benefits when the same volume of activity would need to be funded, with service delivery and quality being maintained?

Would we have national health and education systems, including federal management and operational control of our hospitals and schools, for example, or hundreds of local health and education systems across the nation?

To be sure, federal-state relations need reform and removing duplication remains a priority. But the historic architecture of our federation matters less than whether states are governing effectively.

All that said, I can fully appreciate why calls for the abolition of the states tend to attract some popular support. Sadly, my own state of Victoria hasn’t assisted.

In Victoria under Daniel Andrews’s government, there is a litany of scandals and controversies the state has seldom seen and that is seriously undermining public confidence in the governance Victorians are experiencing.

In the middle of our fire season we are witnessing a scandalous firefighters’ enterprise bargaining agreement dispute, with a militant union, the United Firefighters, on the cusp of usurping complete control of the fire services, including over volunteers, and a compliant Premier.

We have a justice system that’s so chaotic, public confidence is collapsing and prison riots, carjackings, home invasions and other violent crimes are dominating our news coverage every day.

We have a state government with such warped priorities it has launched its third attempt, this time in the High Court, to block our Ombudsman from investigating serious criminal allegations by ALP members that parliamentary staff entitlements were rorted by the Labor Party before the last state election. All costing taxpayers millions.

Meanwhile, household power bills in Victoria are about to rise by 10 per cent and our transport network is choking.

With at least one state government performing this badly, I can understand why Hawke’s calls should be opposed but also respected. It’s only bad government that will keep calls for the abolition of state governments alive. John Pesutto is Victoria’s opposition legal affairs spokesman.


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