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January 27th 2014 print

John Stone

From First Fleet To Faux Federalism

We are a young nation, but that 113 years of existence has been enough for centralism to overturn the founders' vision. On a weekend when we celebrate our history there is comfort in hoping Tony Abbott might be the man to reverse the tide

first parliamentIn celebrating Australia Day last Sunday, I reflected both on the 113 years behind us, and the important year before us.

Australians often forget that the Commonwealth is, in fact, only 113 years old. (Sadly, public polling suggests that many of them are not even aware of the facts of its foundation). We recently had a public illustration of this, when the Aldi supermarket chain advertised an attractive T-shirt bearing the caption “Australia: Est 1788″. Immediately, cries of outrage arose from the usual sources in the racism industry, claiming these “racist” words to be “an insult” to our “first peoples”, Australian Aboriginals, who  arrived long before that date.

Aldi, covered in confusion (as a German multinational, how was it to know that Australia’s self-appointed “opinion leaders” would react in such a po-faced manner?), withdrew the T-shirts from sale – much to the disappointment of many people who, I suspect, would have rather liked to buy one.

The irony was, of course, that while “Australia” was not founded in 1788 – the British colony of New South Wales was – it was equally untrue to suggest that “Australia”, in any meaningful sense of that term, was founded by its earlier Aboriginal immigrants. So the joke was not only on Aldi, but also on all those who had been striking such confected postures of moral outrage – led, as usual, by “our ABC”, which nowadays advertises itself as being “Without Bias, Without Agenda” (as they say, you couldn’t make it up!).

Despite being only 113 years old, and despite the fact that we could undoubtedly have done even better had it not been for the centralist proclivities of successive High Courts ever since the Engineers Case (1920), Australia has been during that time one of the most successful countries in the world, and is now its sixth-oldest democracy. We should look back upon our history with pride, and rejoice in the good fortune of our inheritance, chiefly from Britain. The separation of Church and State, our parliamentary system, a respect for the rule of law (albeit not the rule of lawyers), the common law, and not least our language – that of Shakespeare, the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer, John Milton, and the list goes on – were all bequeathed to us, in some cases as a result of long and at times bitter struggles elsewhere. What a fortunate nation we have indeed been.

In celebrating all that. we should also look forward to the year ahead, with a new government now in Canberra. On one of the great questions now facing it – federalism versus centralism – its record has yet to be demonstrated.

There are some signs, in the recently revised edition of his earlier book Battle Lines (2009), that our new Prime Minister may have retreated somewhat from the remarkably centralist tone of five years ago. If so, that is greatly to be welcomed: but, as always, actions will speak louder than words.

“John Stone is a former Secretary to the Treasury, and former Senator for Queensland and Leader of the National Party in the Senate”