Thursday, August 6, 2009

How can a conservative favour centralization of power?

One of my reasons for reading Tony Abbott’s recent book, “Battlelines”, was to remind myself why I am not a conservative. The more serious reason was to find our how a politician who proudly wears the conservative label would attempt to justify proposing an amendment to the Australian constitution that would remove current restrictions on the policy areas in which the federal government has power to make laws.

In writing this book Tony Abbott, a former minister in the Howard Government who is now on the opposition front bench in the federal parliament, seems to have taken on the role of defining where the battlelines should be drawn in the approach to the next election.

One of the things Abbott is clearly trying to do in this book is to identify enduring values that will continue to bind the Liberal Party together. In the process he does a reasonably good job of minimizing the differences between Hayekian liberals and Burkean conservatives. At one point he writes: “Following Adam Smith, Liberals tend to think that government is necessary to keep the peace but otherwise should let people make mutually beneficial arrangements with each other” (p 82). If I believed that was a statement of conservative philosophy, I would not mind being called a conservative. In other places in the book, however, Abbott displays the contempt for personal freedom that is associated with traditional conservative values. For example: “The basic problem is that most Western countries have privatised the next generation. Having children tends to be regarded as a personal choice rather than a social good” (p 97).

Having now reminded myself why I am not a conservative, let me turn to Abbott’s views on federalism. The essence of his argument is as follows:
  • When nothing else seems to solve problems, voters always expect the central government to ‘do something’.
  • After more than 50 years of increasing federal government involvement in matters that were formerly the exclusive responsibility of the states, the federation has become dysfunctional. “There are few problems in contemporary Australia that a dysfunctional federation doesn’t make worse”.
  • Current attempts to end the “blame game” between different levels of government are not going to work. Someone has to have the legal power to take responsibility.
  • The only credible way to fix the problem is to give the central government the legal power to call the shots i.e. to over-ride the states.
  • The argument that the states form a bulwark against the potential tyranny of the national government is “far-fetched”. Australia has states because this was the price of becoming a nation, not because the fathers of federation thought that an intermediate level of government was necessary to avoid tyranny.
I agree, more or less, with the first three points, but disagree with the last two. What reason do we have for thinking that a government attempting to run schools and hospitals out of Canberra would do a better job than one trying to run them from some office in a state capital? Absolutely none! And I think that Tony Abbott agrees with me. What he has in mind is that if the federal government was able to over-ride the states on health and education the most likely result would be for public hospital and school services to be “provided on a contestable basis by a range of independent and autonomous organisations as well as by state-government instrumentalities” (p 129). That sounds to me like a move in the right direction, but we can’t be sure that some control freak in charge of the central government would not attempt to intervene more directly in the management of hospitals and schools if he/she had the power to do so.

As I see it, the main problem of the federation arise from the stupidity of the central government in its choice of forms of intervention. The basic problem in both hospitals and schools prior to federal intervention was that people were unhappy with the services that state governments were providing from tax revenues. Instead of giving state governments more money to waste, the central government should have given people back some of the money they had paid in taxes so that they could purchase alternative services.

The central government does not need additional power in order to achieve contestable service provision. It just needs to stop propping up inefficient state bureaucracies and give power back to the people.

In concluding I would like to commend Tony Abbott for presenting his views in a forthright manner. It is nice to be able to disagree with quite a lot of the things he has written and yet still feel that, as politicians go, Tony Abbott is not a bad bloke.

Postscript: August 2018

Nine years on it is obvious that the defining characteristic of Tony Abbott’s policy stance hasn’t been centralism, Hayekian liberalism or Burkean conservatism. The defining characteristic has been his attitude to climate change.

It is possible to point to some differences between his current approach to climate change, the approach he adopted when prime minister and the approach adopted in Battlelines. However, I see reasonable consistency in his position on this issue. In Battlelines he wrote:

“It sounds like common sense to minimise human impact on the environment and to reduce the human contribution to increased atmospheric gas concentrations. It doesn’t make much sense, though, to impose certain and substantial costs on the economy now in order to avoid unknown and perhaps even benign changes in the future”.

In a recent speech Abbott said:

“I have never thought that reducing emissions should be a fundamental goal of policy, just something that’s worth doing if the cost is modest.
I have never thought that climate change was, to quote Kevin Rudd, the ‘great moral challenge of our generation’.
It was an issue, that’s all, and – at least on the actual changes we’ve so far seen – not a very significant one compared to man’s inhumanity to man; maintaining and improving living standards; and even to many other environmental issues such as degraded bush and waterways, particulate pollution, water quality in the third world, deforestation, and urban overcrowding.”

In my view Tony Abbott has shown too little recognition of the risks associated with climate change. He would be on firmer ground to argue that emissions reduction targets do little to mitigate those risks.

As politicians go, Abbott seems to have been fairly consistent in his views. However, I have revised my view that he is “not a bad bloke”. His recent behaviour in destabilizing the leadership of the Liberal Party has been appalling.

In Battlelines Abbott posed the question: “How can Australians, individually and collectively come closer to being their ‘best selves’ and what can the Liberal Party do to bring this about?” Abbott should think more about his own contribution in that regard. He hasn’t even been able to avoid doing harm to the electoral prospects of the Liberal Party. If Abbott’s recent failure to be his best self assists a Labor government to come to power in the near future we are likely to see not only deeper cuts in carbon emissions and higher energy prices, but also the adoption of policies that will make citizens increasingly subject to government regulation in many aspects of their lives.

No comments: