Eight years. That’s how long I’ve lived in Australia. And in that time I’ve been lucky enough to see big chunks of this wonderful country, including Darwin, Alice Springs, lots of Tasmania, the Great Ocean Road and all the capital cities. Except for Perth. So it was with no small amount of anticipation that I took the five-and-half-hour plane ride from Brisbane, looking forward to seeing the capital of the state that is virtually single-handedly keeping Australia going.
On the way over I read something that got me thinking about how easy it is to spend other people’s money. Apparently the Prime Minister of Finland, and all of the Cabinet, never fly anything other than economy unless it’s an emergency. Now as someone who himself has never flown business class — and yes, part of me is bitter — that sort of careful use of taxpayers’ money greatly appeals to my Scots-Canadian Presbyterian ancestry. Heck, the top people at Walmart never fly anything but economy, the idea being that if it really is that important you can go a day early and spend a few hundred dollars more on an extra night in the hotel.
Yet here in Australia our civil servants and politicians, even our puffed-up top university administrators, jet around far, far too often at the front of the plane. I kid you not: the former Vice Chancellor of my university had it written into his contract that he flew not just business class but first class on overseas flights. Did you know your taxes were indirectly going to pay for that? Personally, were I the government, I would instantly deduct that money from any funds going to the university, such is the ridiculously unnecessary wastefulness of that sort of arrangement. But don’t hold your breath. The careful husbandry (and I use that word fearing that our Prime Minister might think that even the word alone makes someone a misogynist) of taxpayer monies is virtually extinct in this country.
Where was I? Ah yes, I was arriving in Perth. And yes, it is booming. You see cranes all over the place, though the locals told me the pace has slowed down of late. I had some spare time my first morning and I’d been told to go and visit the Mint. And my was it wonderful. From watching a gold bar being melted and poured, to seeing a one tonne ‘The Kangaroo’ gold coin, to hearing all about the early gold rush days, to finding out my gold weight equivalent worth, and more, the hour and a half flew by. I recommend it to anyone.
I also took away a message or metaphor about Australia from my visit to the Mint. You see the actual minting of our circulating coins no longer takes place in Perth. It has been moved to Canberra. For this ardent federalist that pretty much sums up Australia’s attitude to federalism. The national political class, and our top judges, don’t like it and they take every chance to undermine it. Compared with our common law cousins in Canada and the US, our top judges have been by far the most pro-centre in their interpretations, to an indefensible extent in my view. They, alone, have allowed income taxing powers to be taken away (for all practical purposes) from the States, turning them into mendicants that can never really stand up to Canberra and so giving us by far the worst vertical fiscal imbalance of anywhere I know.
Meantime, finding a real federalist in national politics is near on impossible. The Labor party have always been diehard centralists. And the Coalition is now much the same. (When former Western Australian Treasurer and Attorney-General Christian Porter successfully moves into federal politics at the next election, he will be the only strong federalist politician I can think of at the national level.) I liked John Howard on many fronts, but he was no federalist. Nor is Tony Abbott, whom I also like on many fronts. They just have it badly wrong on federalism.
Ironically, if the High Court had done its job and struck down the WorkChoices legislation, as any plausible reading of our Constitution dictated, John Howard would have won the 2007 election and we would have been spared the ghastly Gillard and Rudd nightmare. Oh, and we would today have more liberal labour laws than that duo have foisted on us.
I suppose any time you find Justices Kirby and Callinan agreeing, as they did in dissent over WorkChoices, you ought to sit up and ask yourself how the majority could get it so badly wrong. But of course there is virtually no fixing our federalism now, such is the mess that the judges and Canberra politicians have made of it.
The main reason for my trip to Perth was to speak at a free speech conference at Murdoch University. My lord, things are moving in the wrong direction on that front too. We have debate-stifling hate speech laws that really must be repealed (in their entirety, Coalition, not in some half-arsed pseudo compromise). We have the Finkelstein report, which oozes patronising disdain for the common man and woman’s abilities to process and understand what they hear and so urges a statutory Media Council that will set freedom of speech back hundreds of years.
And of course we have a stifling political correctness that comes from the likes of our Prime Minister standing up and playing the victim, and thereby trying to take humour and criticism off the table. Can you imagine Margaret Thatcher or Angela Merkel or Helen Clark stooping to such pathetic levels? My rule of thumb is that any time a politician tries to play the victim, the voters ought to oblige at the next election.
James Allan is Garrick Professor of Law at the University of Queensland.