Has time come to end the 'blame game'?

'As a former director-general of the Queensland Premier's Department', observed Bob McMullan recently, Kevin Rudd 'would be the most experienced opposition leader in Australia's history when it comes to a working knowledge of how the Commonwealth interacts with the states'.

Is Kevin Rudd the Australian federation's Man on a White Horse? The opposition leader has come with a reputation for leading the Commonwealth and the states to embrace national change from his pre-Canberra post, in outlying Queensland. Mr Rudd will be in a stronger position to show the way if Labor is successful in the general election. He will want to be. There is no gainsaying that the ability of a Rudd Labor government to deliver a substantial reform agenda for health and education services, and the environment and the economy generally, will depend on the new prime minister's capacity to make the Australian federation work, and work hard.

Long plagued by apparently intractable problems, the traditional Labor answer to federalism has been to advocate the elimination of the states in favour of a national government with unfettered responsibility for economic development and major public services, supplemented by strengthened and more participatory regional or local administrations.

This was never a realistic answer. The centralist approach not only played into the eagerness of conservatives to foment parochial alarmism. As John Quiggin points out in the current edition of The State of the States, the idea is only appealing in the abstract. Once the current capital cities and their immediate urban satellites are allocated to regions, the only places in Australia with populations of more than 90,000 are Townsville, Cairns and Launceston. At best, the idea of abolishing the states in favour of more localised government would produce ... ten states, instead of eight! Wishing away the problem of making the present federation work by imagining a new regionalism wishes away thinking realistically about the issue altogether.

Like it or not, federalism is not to be wished away. In this Evatt Newsletter, we publish two essays on the issue. Anne Twomey and Glenn Withers reject the idea that centralism is the order of the day. "In the rest of the world', they point out, 'the prevailing trend is towards decentralisation and federalism.' The benefits of federalism are too often overlooked in the focus on problems. Far from being out of date, they argue, 'federalism is regarded as one of the best governmental systems for dealing with the twin pressures produced by globalisation - the upward pressure to deal with some matters at the supra-national level and the downwards pressure to bring government closer to the people.' Dovetailing, George Williams eschews the idea of a quick-fix, positing a long-term campaign to get the federation right.

With this issue and a progressive outlook in mind, the Evatt Foundation is proud to host a public forum on 'The Future of Federalism' as a Fringe Event of the 2007 ALP National Conference. To discuss the way forward, the event will bring together the distinguished economist, and author of the essay on federalism in the current edition of The State of the States, John Quiggin, and the Australian Labor Party's Shadow Minister for Federal-State Relations, Bob McMullan. The forum, which is open to Evatt members and the public generally, will be at breakfast time on the Saturday morning of the second day of the Conference, in the Terrace Rooms of the adjacent Novotel. This is an event specially presented for people anticipating the future trajectory of Rudd Labor.

Among the many surprises associated with the rise and rise of Kevin Rudd as Australia's Labor leader was his address to the Centre for Independent Studies last November. Launching into a critique of the spiritual godfather of the global neoliberal movement, Friedrich von Hayek, Rudd branded John Howard 'a child of Hayek', sparking a rare flurry of public debate about the late ideologue in the Australian media. The Foundation took the opportunity to invite Andrew Gamble, Professor of Politics at the University of Cambridge and author of Hayek: The Iron Cage of Liberty (Polity Press, 1996), to reflect on Rudd's intervention, which we publish exclusively in this Evatt Newsletter. In related commentary, Don Arthur looks at Hayek from another perspective, searching for fusion in comparing his work with the equally famous ideas of American philosopher, John Rawls. Completing a Hayek trifecta, Tristan Ewins reviews David McKnight's book on new politics and the culture wars, which was one of the sources for Rudd's Hayek/Howard critique.

In two futher illuminating papers in this Newsletter, the former secretary of the South Australian labour council and now full-time researcher on industrial issues, Chris White, writes on trade union developments in China. In one paper, White tells the remarkable story of how the All-China Federation of Trade Unions organised Wal-Mart, not from the top-down as the ACFTU has typically operated, but by organising workers to take action at the local level. In his second paper, White places this development in the context of wider change occurring to China's labour law. In a clarifying perspective on the extremity of the Howard government's laws, White points out that the proposed amendments to China's law have the potential to introduce a better balancing of the rights and interests of workers and employers than WorkChoices!

Finally, long-time readers of the Evatt site will be pleased to know that the long-planned upgrade is well under way and should be operational by mid-year. In particular, the new site will introduce a more formal attribution system for the authors who generously provide our copy, and an improved facility for reader feedback. We will look forward to hearing from you.

Christopher Sheil
Evatt Foundation