During the week, as Pollytics blog reported, Essential Research found strong support for a Commonwealth takeover of hospitals.
But as The Weekend Australian‘s editorial argued, the lesson from the insulation fiasco is that it is time to think again about what it called ‘Big Canberra’ – the belief among senior politicians of both parties, often supported by a frustrated public, that the Commonwealth bureaucracy can succeed where state bureaucracies have failed.
While I think it has probably been historically true that in politics – of both the parliamentary and bureaucratic kind – talent has been attracted to the centre, I don’t think there strong grounds for believing that running more services from Canberra would lead to systematic and consistent improvements.
Actually delivering services is a far more complex task than what the federal government has traditionally done – which has mainly been to collect money and then hand it out again, according to policies they have designed. Even there, the Commonwealth’s performance has often been far from impressive.
For instance, overall higher education since the Commonwealth takeover in 1974 has been an area of chronic policy failure, in that the policies attached to funding have made things worse than they could easily have otherwise been. The United States provides a contrasting history, where universities have remained as primarily state responsibilities. As federal theory would predict, some American states have done much better than others. But on average public universities have had much better policy environments there than here over the last generation.
Bureaucratic service delivery faces basic problems of resource allocation, information flows and incentives which are inherently difficult to overcome, whether government is local, state or federal. If anything, they are likely to get worse if control is shifted to the centre. Decision-makers will be further away from service delivery, and consumer-citizen electoral clout will be diluted if national politics is the only forum for airing grievances.
One of the greatest follies of the later Howard years was to join the centralising push. Not only does this ignore the long-held federalist inclinations of the Australian centre-right, but it will make the Coalition’s electoral task even more difficult in future. The more historically Labor-owned issues such as health are seen as federal responsibilities, the harder it will be for centre-right parties ever to win federal elections. We’ll make the Commonwealth like the states, where Labor has long been relatively strong as the party that ‘cares’ most about health and other social service issues, and is rewarded with electoral dominance.