Tony Abbott is an unrepentant conservative centralist. Giving some initial publicity to his forthcoming book Conservatism After Howard, he told journalists that he wanted the Constitution changed to give the federal government complete power to pass laws over-riding the states:
The electorate wants problems solved and they don’t want a treatise on why the relevant level of government can’t solve a problem because it lacks the power.
“The federal government is totally hamstrung by the legal authority that resides in the states. Where the federal government needs to take charge, it shouldn’t need to bribe the states to do so – and it only operates as long as the bribe is in place.”
Some new polling suggests that, with some regret, the electorate agrees with him. As a general principle, a slim majority supports the proprosition that
It is better for decisions to be made at the lowest level of government competent to deal with the decision.
But in practice nearly 80% agree that “where there is an important issue that state governments are not solving, the federal government should step in to resolve it.” Overall, 82% of respondents rated the federal government’s performance as quite good or very good, compared to 57% who gave that rating to the states.
Personally, I think this is a misjudgment (though that is perhaps easier for a Victorian to say than those living under the wretched Iemma government). The reason the feds look good is that giving money away, the main thing the Commonwealth does, is easy compared to running hospitals, schools, or public transport. The idea that a physically remote federal bureaucracy, with little experience in service delivery, would do a significantly better job than the states is, if not implausible, far from self-evident.
It’s also far from self-evident that it makes sense for a Liberal member of federal parliament to advocate more centralism. The more the federal government is seen as responsible for Labor-owned issues such as health and education, the less likely the electorate is to vote in a Liberal government. By contrast, issues which have a strong national component – the economy, immigration, defence, and taxation – are issues on which the Liberals have generally been the preferred party. The more federal elections can be about traditionally strong Liberal issues, the better the party’s chance of winning.
Federal encroachment on state issues has another negative consequence for the Liberals. It allows incompetent state governments to shift the blame for their own under-performance to the federal government, depriving Liberal state oppositions of the chance to hold state Labor clearly responsible for shortcomings in service delivery.
The Howard government’s centralism was both a policy and a political mistake. Conservatism after Howard should in this regard be more like conservatism before Howard: solidly federalist.