First Fleet in Port Jackson 1788. Click to learn more.
Are the days of the states numbered?
Australia is a federation, each state and territory having its own government with powers set out in the Constitution and with constitutional change requiring a referendum. Nonetheless, the definition of the relative powers of the states and the centre in Canberra has been subject to adjustment before. The trend towards reduction of state power has been on for at least thirty years, but under John Howard has accelerated. I suspect this will continue, whoever wins the 2007 election.
One area where the change is notable is in the area of climate change and water and energy management, where the government’s scepticism, symbolised in its refusal to sign up to Kyoto, has been rebadged “realism” and has in fact become more flexible. Two items in last night’s 7.30 Report show very well how things stand today: Howard pledges $10b to solve water crisis and Malcolm Turnbull interview — and a very good interviewee Turnbull is, definitely future PM material, I’d say.
KERRY O’BRIEN: After years of bickering – at times, outright brawling – over the hot button political issue of Australia’s rural water crisis, it seems we have one of those rare moments in federal politics when both sides might eventually, actually, come together. The Prime Minister has pledged $10 billion over the next decade to solve the crippling problems of the nation’s food bowl, the Murray Darling basin – essentially, to save the mighty Murray – to hasten national water reform and overhaul inefficient farm water delivery, to complete the restoration of the Great Artesian Basin and to explore the prospect of opening up rain rich northern Australia to more agriculture. While the response from the States has been mixed to Mr Howard’s plan to take over control of the Murray Darling, Federal Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd has promised broad bipartisan support. So will this plan work where others have failed? Shortly I’ll be speaking to Malcolm Turnbull, the new Minister for Environment and Water Resources but, first, this report from Matt Peacock.
MATT PEACOCK: Australia’s once mighty Murray Darling River, a dying river system. Now just a trickle, with permanent dredging the only way for the past half decade, it reaches the sea. The mighty river redgums dying. The Murray cod, and other fish – dying. Three quarters of its dwindling water goes to irrigation, providing nearly half of Australia’s food. And today, the latest solution from John Howard.
JOHN HOWARD, PRIME MINISTER: Today I have outlined the biggest, the most costly and boldest plan to tackle Australia’s rural water challenge.
MATT PEACOCK: It’s not the first grand water vision. For years the politicians have talked while the river has shrunk. Two years ago the Federal and State governments agreed to flush 500 gigalitres through the river system as an environmental flow. It’s yet to happen.
DON HENRY, AUSTRALIAN CONSERVATION FOUNDATION: We’re at absolute emergency stage with the Murray Darling, it’s like it’s having a heart attack. It needs to get into the ambulance immediately. We’re the challenged and privileged generation that’s either going to keep it there for the future or lose it.
MATT PEACOCK: The big difference today is that the former champion of States’ rights, now Prime Minister, wants to take control from the States…
It’s a very real problem and Kevin Rudd is right to opt for “broad bipartisan support”.
I gather Rudd may also be planning to federalise the health system, and if that is so many who work in that system would applaud the move.
In education, the push to federalise has also been on for some time with some moves already being made in that direction, though I would question the value of some of them. Here I am less convinced. If Canberra took on responsibility for public education I would hope they were committed to the value of public education, and I am quite sure the present lot are suspect in this regard. Further, any teacher with any experience will tell you that educational bureaucracies already seem too far from the chalk-face. In fact, the smaller the state the less that seems to be a problem. Since education is very much a concrete set of transactions in very specific circumstances, any overarching authority has to build in local initiative and local support.
Major constitutional change cannot happen in Australia without the consent of the majority expressed in a referendum. It will be interesting to see how far the “new federalism” can go before High Court challenges force whatever government of the day to either back down or put it to the vote. But I seem to be getting into Jim Belshaw’s territory here. I will be interested to see what he has to say on these matters over the next few months.
Tim Flannery announced Australian of the Year
To which I can only say: 🙂
See the 7.30 Report again.
KERRY O’BRIEN: Tim Flannery, a former governor general once said he saw his job as holding up a mirror and reflecting the nation to itself. I wonder what you see in that mirror?
TIM FLANNERY, AUSTRALIAN OF THE YEAR: I suppose what I see in that mirror is a people who are coming to terms with the land that supports them and really defines them, who don’t yet understand it particularly well and understand its sensitivities, and therefore are sort of like squatters. We’re squatting on the country rather than being true ones who have a long term future here through a careful caring for our land.
KERRY O’BRIEN: If we’ve been slow learners in that, it would be in part at least, wouldn’t it, because of the kind of iconic images that we’ve drawn for ourselves as being hardy pioneers of the land, and the land and our development of the land, working of the land, has been so much a part of the ethos.
TIM FLANNERY: That’s right, and that grand illusion, if you want, came from a particular history where our ancestors came from an overcrowded and impoverished Europe into this, what seemed to be an open continent, that seemed so easy to exploit. You could put the sheep on the land, you didn’t even need to knock down the trees and all of a sudden you were a wealthy landowner. And that pioneer phase is due to a naivete both on the part of the land about us and us about the land and what it can actually contain. It was as if we ate through the wealth of the continent in just a few decades rather than carefully shepherded it. And those images and icons made it harder to realise the reality of the situation for us and I think it’s only now, as people look at the country with new eyes and see that it is limited, that we need to take care of it and that it will define our future, that we’re starting to see a new reality.
Big Day Out
Good to see it passed without incident, and the flag-waving seems to have mostly been of a more benign variety than the organisers may have first feared. We should in fairness to them note they were reacting to real abuses that had happened on the occasion in the recent past. See also Raising the Standard (Wombat’s Waffles) and (27 January) Adrian Phoon. [Adrian is no longer on line.]