What to do with The States
If the states lose the power to set mining royalties as a result of a Federal resources tax, chalk up another milestone in the loss of their fiscal autonomy. They lost control over taxes on alcohol, petrol and tobacco ( 1997 High Court decision ) and the GST locked them behind Canberra even more , leaching their capacity to set their own budget priorities. The court more recently confirmed their loss of power over industrial relations and the Canberra bureaucracy will now run school curricula ; in a caricature of how federal and state governments should share responsibilities John Howard funded school chaplains and school flagpole programs.
Meanwhile the states struggle to invent grown-up things to do with NSW boasting an Assistant Minister for Veterans’ Affairs ( what do they do ? sweep up the wreaths ? ) and Victoria under John Brumby a Minister for Respect ( what next ? a Queensland Minister for Modesty or a Tasmanian for Thrift ? ). Sure they still run land use planning and development approval, police, gaols and public transport but- hang on- is this anymore than five ministers ? Here then is my first proposal : have COAG settle on a plan for no more than five ministers in any state government in 10 years time.
As for plainly under-employed backbechers : put them on a third of their current pay and accept their role as part-time not full-time MPs as in many US legislatures.
My own preference is for a lively sharing of powers in a Federal system. I don’t think the Canberra bureaucracy has shown it can run anything better than seasoned state public servants – the examples of detention centres and pink bats make the point. They will even bring the wrong body home from Iraq, the kind of mistake that would generate a Royal Commission if duplicated in any of the state hospital systems. But the trend is now unarguable, the drift to the centre more pronounced than has occurred in any other federal system .
Now’s time to fly the white flag of surrender although let’s hope the centralising stops before we get Gauleiters or prefects appointed by Canberra to run the states . The loss of so many meaningful functions, gathering pace under Howard, is simply embarrassing. Let’s go for compact state cabinets and part-time legislators more appropriate to the rapid shrinking of state functions than the sprawling imperial clutter we’ve inherited from the time they did most of the governing.