Monday, February 27, 2006

Stephen Loosley: When old foes are friends

Stephen Loosley: When old foes are friends

27.02.06

At first glance there appears to be a clear political division in Australia between different levels of Government. For a decade, since March 1996, the conservative coalition of the Liberal and National parties has dominated federal Government in Canberra. Over the same decade, the Labor Party has emerged as the dominant player at state and territorial level. Currently, every state and territory has a Labor Government.

Superficially, the division is clear. But there are different layers in the federal/state compact which has governed Australia since 1901 and sometimes, the differences between ostensible opponents in politics are outweighed by practicalities.

This was seen most recently in the meeting of the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) in Canberra on earlier this month. COAG brings together the Prime Minister and the Premiers and is charged with working priority issues through in the national interest, especially where federal and state responsibilities overlap.

This last meeting of COAG was dominated by the politics of bipartisanship, particularly in the area of mental health. There was broad agreement between the Prime Minister and his state counterparts on much more needing to be done to tackle the problem. Partly as a consequence, Queensland Premier Peter Beattie beamed at a press conference that COAG meetings just kept getting better. So they do, if your party happens to be in Government.

For since the end of the Cold War, Australian politics, in concert with politics in the West generally, has lost almost all its ideological sting. The absence of any kind of serious political alternative to the Left of the Labor Party and the long experience of federal Government under Prime Ministers Bob Hawke and Paul Keating, has taken the ALP very much into the mainstream. State Labor Governments routinely have occupied this ground, which is one reason why Australians have so often entrusted state Government to Labor while simultaneously electing conservative Governments federally.

Australians are very deliberate voters. Where state and federal politics are concerned, they make choices based on different portfolios of issues.

National security has dominated Australian national politics since federation. The political party which demonstrates a greater capacity and commitment to guaranteeing the nation's security in a time of external threat or crisis, carries the electoral day handsomely.

This has been true of both sides of politics, as reflected in Andrew Fisher's election on the eve of World War I, where his campaign was based on the simple premise: "We're in this war to the last man and shilling". Of more recent times, John Howard's declaration that Australia would decide just which new arrivals would be accepted and under what circumstances they would be accepted, resonated clearly with voters.

To national security may be added the national responsibility for economic governance. Again, the political party which best reflects Australian aspirations and is perceived to have the policy mix to deliver prosperity, routinely finishes on the treasury benches in Canberra.

At state level, Government is entrusted to the party best perceived to deliver services, in health and education, in transport and law enforcement.

The Council of Australian Governments might better be called the Coalition of Australian Governments. Federal Opposition Leader Kim Beazley was clearly irked by the obvious camaraderie of the Prime Minister and premiers. Who could blame him? His state Labor colleagues were clearly comfortable working with a conservative Government in Canberra. Equally, the Prime Minister appears not to be losing too much sleep over the parlous position of his party in the states.

The non-ideological nature of political contest means that Governments confront similar dilemmas in Canberra and the states and are equipped with similar policy tools. Market orientation is common and the arguments are at the margins.

What the bonhomie in Canberra at COAG demonstrated is that most of Australia's political leaders are as comfortable with the current federal/state divide in responsibility as are the voters. Forthcoming elections in South Australia and Tasmania seem unlikely to change this division.

There are exceptions to this general rule, of course, as is reflected in the states' High Court challenge on workplace relations, or over the division of Commonwealth grants. But broadly, political colour means far less these days than political office. That's a reality in most Western countries, but nowhere is it so sharply defined as in the current federal compact applying in Australia.

Who's in charge

The Commonwealth Government controls foreign affairs, immigration, telephone services, defence.

The State Governments regulate education, health, the environment, and the operation of emergency services (police, fire, ambulance).

In power

* Federal Government: John Howard's Conservative coalition of the Liberal and National Parties.

* State Governments: All are controlled by the Australian Labor Party.

About the writer

Stephen Loosley served as federal president of the Australian Labor Party and was elected to the Australian Senate in 1990.

He served as chairman of the joint standing committee on foreign affairs, defence and trade. Currently, he is the chairman of the Committee for Sydney, the premier business advocacy group, and is the principal strategic adviser for Babcock & Brown, Sydney. He is a fellow of the Centre for Independent Legal Studies (Salzburg) and of the Australian Institute of Company Directors. He serves on numerous boards including the boards of the partnership executive of the National Rugby League and the editorial board of the Australian Institute of International Affairs.

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