12 June 2011

Is harmonisation a euphemism for subjugation of the states?

Peter Phelps is a new member of the NSW Legislative Council.

As is the wont of maiden (or, as they are now grandly called, so as not to offend maidens, inaugural) speeches, the new member canvassed a number of different issues.

Perhaps unusually for a state MP making his first speech, he wondered about the point of maintaining the concept of provincial government, making some of the usual observations:

What relevance do the States then have? Not much by any assessment. They are too small to encompass the cultural and too large to encompass genuine communities of interest. To that end, Alex Hawke, who is in the public gallery today, kindly faxed me a copy of Jack Lang's 1930 Abolition Bill, with the suggestion that it would be an excellent first private member's bill for me to introduce. I doubt whether I will be taking him up on that offer at this time.

But if we are just going to be a way station for the Federal Government and its dictat, then why not? Why not abolish the Legislative Council and the Legislative Assembly. Why not abolish the State Government entirely? What purpose do we serve if we are straight-jacketed within federally mandated systems of education, water, land use, fishing, and environmentalism? Since the engineers case, the High Court has permitted a gradual accretion of power and interference in State matters.

Harmonisation has become a euphemism for subjugation. What is the use of this? Are we simply an imperial bauble perched atop a colonial anachronism, the errand boys of the Federal Government? If States are to remain relevant we must fight for real competitive federalism—not cooperative federalism—with genuine competition between the States, not this collectivist begging bowl approach. If you want to be a pot smoking Mullumbimby hippie, fine—but do not expect me to subsidise your lifestyle. Similarly, if a State has resources that are left unused, why should it expect us to subsidise a lifestyle for which it is unwilling to pay? If the distribution of revenue to the States was done on the basis of direct parity with its collection, then fine. It is not perfect but at least it would be a just outcome. But at this time horizontal fiscal equalisation, as it is called, is just an excuse to rob the productive to pay the lazy.

Whether through grand design or humorous coincidence the very next business in the Council was the thrillingly named Miscellaneous Acts Amendment (Director’s Liability) Bill 2011

The reason for introducing the legislation was because:

(t)hese amendments will ensure that New South Wales legislation imposing this type of liability accords with the set of principles agreed by the Council of Australian Governments [COAG] to guide the reform and harmonisation of directors' liability across Australian law.

As the Attorney-General said in the Legislative Assembly:

I thank honourable members for their contributions to the debate. In particular I thank the member for Liverpool, who said the Opposition does not oppose the legislation, which we are pleased about because it is important Council of Australian Governments [COAG] legislation. In response to the member for Liverpool, these reforms are part of a COAG National Partnership Agreement under which there are reward payments to the States for achieving key milestones.

One of these key milestones was for legislation implementing these reforms by December 2010. The Liberal-Nationals Government was not in office at that time. However, perhaps we can get some brownie points, because these milestones may be reviewed by COAG and there may be a second tranche of reforms at a later stage.....

Somewhat proves Phelps’ point, really.

There have been some developments in the federalism debate recently. They are discussed in the next couple of articles.

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