A Matter of Choice

Keynote Address: Rebuilding the Federation

The Hon. Richard Court

The issue on which you have asked me to speak tonight is "A Matter of Choice" and I believe it is very relevant to current Australian politics. The litmus test of any democratic system of government is how much personal choice it bestows on an individual. Democratic political thinkers throughout the centuries have attempted to construct political systems of government to ensure that individual rights were protected and allowed to be given expression while, at the same time, checks and balances were put in place to ensure that the control of executive power was limited. The premise of all democratic systems is the protection of the rights and freedoms of the individual and that was well summed up by Thomas Jefferson in his first draft of the American Declaration of Independence and I quote:

We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable; that all men are created equal and independent, that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent and inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Now it was in that spirit of protecting personal freedoms and liberties that the Australian Constitution was created, and one of the guiding principles of the Australian Constitution was that the government should remain close to the people. This principle had a practical necessity because of Australia's huge land mass and disparate population. That is why the States were given such an important role in the exercise of government in the Australian Constitution. By ensuring strong State governments, decisions could be made at a local level which truly reflected that local public opinion. This ensured the public in Australia had a genuine choice in what rules they could be governed by, and how they prioritised issues such as the spending of public moneys on services.

This principle of ensuring that governments and the decisions of government are close to the people seems to have been generally forgotten in recent years. We have experienced in this country a major erosion of the responsibilities of the State and the centralisation of political and economic power in Canberra; what this means to the public is less political choice. People in Western Australia, for example, have less choice on the most basic issues, such as how money will be spent on basic services, including things like roads.

The danger with centralism is that it can lead to dictatorship, administratively at first, and at deeper levels later. Administrative dictatorship can develop slowly, insidiously, through central control of programs.

I have read in the press in recent days the arguments going on about which body is going to control the expenditure of the Land Acquisition Fund, and the debate as to how the money for Canberra's new employment programmes is going to be distributed, or about Kelty's regional development strategies. None of it has anything to do with the States' involvement; it is all argued as to who within Canberra is going to be responsible for those matters.

I attended an Economic Planning Advisory Committee meeting which the Prime Minister had, and it was a group of about twenty five 25 people sitting around the Cabinet Room in Canberra. They were predominantly Canberra people. Kelty was giving his report and I looked around the room. There were two State representatives, from Western Australia and Victoria. Bill Kelty, when he made his report, said:

You know it has been quite an eye opener for us doing this regional development report. There are some very good people out there in the regions. We were surprised with the number of leaders that we ran up against out there in those regional areas. It is time we got off our backsides here in Canberra.

This was an extraordinary condescension. The reality is that the regions are Australia, not Canberra. They are the people that provide the income that pay the taxes so there can be a Canberra. If you read Kelty's report, its main recommendation is that we should increase the fuel taxes so that we can implement his proposals and the main project that they want to build with the increased fuel taxes is a four lane highway between Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. Well, you talk about increasing fuel taxes out there in the regions when Canberra has just put another three cents on last year and you go close to having a revolt on your hands.

Half a century ago it was Winston Churchill who spoke of an iron curtain descending on Europe. It was the name that he gave to the system which swallowed up all of central and eastern Europe but, more importantly, it was the iron curtain that denied the people of those countries their personal freedom. In a less dramatic and emotional way, something similar is happening in Australia and it hasn't happened with tanks and guns. But centralism, as practised by the Commonwealth Government, is the peaceful takeover of the powers of the States and very few Australians understand the extent to which the Federal/State partnership has been undermined. In fact it has been substantially reduced and I just hope that we are not too late to arrest the takeover so cleverly orchestrated from Canberra.

Gradually the authority and the purpose of the States is being whittled away. Successive Commonwealth Governments have been concerned only with stretching their legal powers as distinct from working within the spirit of the original Federal Compact.

From the earliest days, Canberra has sought to dominate the States and it could do this more effectively in recent years because it has increasingly held the purse strings. More recently we have seen the clever use of the Commonwealth's so-called external affairs power and Section 109 of the Constitution to over-rule the States. The eminent former Chief Justice, Sir Harry Gibbs, has said: "in light of recent High Court decisions, the words 'external affairs' could mean 'anything'."

The Founding Fathers had guaranteed, or thought they had guaranteed, the sovereignty of the States. That is why it seems so extraordinary that we have a High Court which, in recent times, has failed to protect the sovereignty of the States. It seems significant that when the same Court worked under Australia's most outstanding lawyer, Chief Justice Sir Owen Dixon, it made decisions which did recognise the constitutional rights of the States. There are many glaring current examples of the use or the abuse of the external affairs power and the attack on the Australian Constitution. There is a Canberra grab for power and if you sit in my position you see it every day in all sectors of government. There has been a blow-out in the bureaucracy and we are seeing more and more duplication. All the things that the States do best are under attack from the empire builders in Canberra. The bureaucracy running the Federal education system, as you know, is large but it doesn't teach any students. There is an equally large health bureaucracy which doesn't treat any patients.

The Constitution made it clear that State Governments are better placed to recognise local priorities and services such as health and education. It left the States with the sole responsibility for the areas of law and order, the regulation of commerce and industry, transport, natural resources including land, essential services, sewerage, drainage, electricity, gas, local government, education, housing, health and the environment, and in all of these areas we now have major interference and costly duplication. In some instances, the Commonwealth, with the help of the High Court which it appointed, has almost complete control.

My views and concerns are not the knee-jerk reaction of a so-called State's righter because we only talk in Western Australia of a State's responsibilities. We are witnessing the slow undoing of all of the things which we had started originally and developed. The services such as health and education and water and electricity supplies are all best handled by the State. But we are seeing the external affairs power used as a manoeuvre to effectively get around some of the other constraints that were put in place on the central government in the Constitution.

The present trend to central control in Canberra, if it continues unchecked, poses a direct threat to democratic government in Australia. One might suppose that democracy is assured merely by holding elections for federal members of parliament. Surely this will guarantee that our hard-won democratic institutions and customs will be safeguarded, you might think.

Anyone familiar with how governments work knows better. People's lives are influenced most strongly and persuasively by the direct services and administrative activities of government agencies at a practical level. All the high-toned rhetoric about democratic principles counts for nothing in the end if ordinary Australians at a local level have no direct say in how government serves them.

Dictatorships can be sold to people on the grounds of "efficiency" or "getting the national economy moving again". We are rapidly approaching a soft form of Canberra dictatorship. If present trends continue, this could harden progressively until Australia becomes a democracy in name only.

I turn now to consider a growing dictatorship from outside Australia. Those who dream of one world have the highest and most commendable motivations. They see the United Nations as becoming, one day, some form of benevolent, democratically elected world government.

But what we do see now? We see the handiwork of a large, aggressive and increasingly interventionist UN bureaucracy influencing domestic policies in member nations.

The Prime Minister, we see, uses international treaties and conventions to impose his policies on Australians. The United Nations has Committees which are active in almost every facet of human affairs from financial to social and environmental issues. Sitting on these Committees are representatives from some nations which do not even know how a democratic system works. These unelected people at the United Nations are having more to say about some Australian decisions than the Australian voters themselves.

Only this week we saw the United Nations seeking to impose its will on Tasmanians. The United Nations Human Rights Commission says that certain Tasmanian laws are oppressive and should be changed, but those laws are in force in Tasmania because the people living there, in a sovereign state, voted for them and, if they don't like them, they can change the government and the law is changed. But unelected people on the other side of the world are trying to tell the electors of the States in this country what to do. Putting it simply, we must stop being governed from abroad.

The Federal Government is using administrative actions and not parliament to implement the rules made by these United Nations Committees but by doing so it cedes government to people we never know, we have never met and we can never question. These international covenants are certainly becoming more and more convenient for the centralists in government. It really is a sleight of hand form of politics. Now anyone who bothers to oppose them is told that they will make Australia the laughing stock of the world, but we have a United Nations which has a bewildering array of treaties, agreements and covenants. Of course, there are occasions when Australia is obliged to enter treaties, and when it is appropriate this should be done in consultation with the States.

No one disputes that Australia must take its due place on the world stage or that the Commonwealth has the responsibility to represent us internationally. But in discharging this responsibility, two major issues need to be borne in mind.

Firstly, I doubt the need to sign many of these international treaties and agreements at all. Every time Australia does so, her sovereignty is reduced to some degree. There is nothing to stop us simply observing the appropriate and desirable provisions of such treaties without signing anything.

I will give you a concrete example the International Convention on the Rights of the Child. Surely in Australia we know how to look after our children without being told what to do by some foreign group working out of the United Nations. If some aspect of childrens' rights needs to be addressed, we have the political and administrative processes in place to do it. This convention adds nothing in Australia.

Secondly, these treaties should be made, if they must, using at least three integral forms of protection for the Federal Compact:

  • the Commonwealth should closely involve the States at all stages during the negotiations which formulate the treaty;
  • the executive government in Canberra should not be able simply to ratify such treaties. In each and every case they should be made the subject of a special Bill for an Act which authorises the government of the day to ratify the treaty. The Bill would have to be passed by both the Houses of the Commonwealth Parliament; and
  • each treaty, covenant or agreement should include a standard clause which states that Australia is a federation and the Commonwealth Government cannot act for the sovereign State Governments. I understand that such a clause is used routinely by other countries (Germany, for example).

We desperately need a new approach from Canberra to this external affairs issue. In negotiating such treaties, a Commonwealth Government genuinely concerned to make the Federal Compact operate as intended, could consult with the States and involve them in drafting the treaty documentation. In this way we could avoid the potential for conflicts with existing State laws which all too often have provided the means for Canberra to enter fields previously the province of State Governments.

By negotiating in good faith with the States, Australia could implement the desirable elements of international standards without having to take the extra step of signing away yet more of our nation's sovereignty.

In cases where a signed treaty is appropriate, a co-operative Commonwealth could work with the States to harmonise the treaty obligations with existing State administration processes. This would ensure willing co-operation and, more importantly, avoid duplication, extra costs and constitutional conflict.

The mis-use of the external affairs power has widened the Commonwealth's armoury of weapons very considerably. If the Commonwealth genuinely wanted the Federal Compact to operate as intended, it could very easily overcome the problem by negotiating in good faith with the States about the domestic operation of international treaties and agreements.

At the same time as they face this external affairs threat, the States are experiencing a severe financial squeeze, deliberately orchestrated by the Commonwealth. The Federal Government wants to keep as much money for itself as possible, to deploy at its discretion, using tied grants and other means to control State policy agendas.

In the past ten years, Commonwealth payments to the States have fallen 13% in real per capita terms, while the Commonwealth's own purpose outlays have grown by 17% in real per capita terms over the same period.

This has provided Mr Keating with a large slush fund which he can deploy to enhance the Labor Government's electoral appeal at the expense of genuine service delivery by State agencies.

We saw how the slush fund was deployed by Ros Kelly in the infamous Sports Rorts affair. This is the sort of mismanagement we can expect when Canberra collects more money than it needs for its constitutional responsibilities and refuses to allocate the funds where they belong which is to the States, so that they can deliver services to ordinary Australians.

I will pause here to mention one important aspect of the Sports Rorts saga which has received no attention whatever, either by the media or by informed commentators. No one has asked the question "Why is the Commonwealth involved at all in financial grants to sporting bodies?" This is clearly a State responsibility. The Commonwealth has no business getting involved in sport at a State and local level.

In this case, it is abundantly clear why it has done so. It deployed cash to curry votes just prior to an election. Surely there could be no better example of how heavily centralised power and control can be used to corrupt our political system and the very basis of our democratic processes.

How many other similar fiscal abuses await our discovery?

The Sports Rorts matter leads me into the general question of specific purpose payments, the so-called tied grants. These are payments made directly to States for purposes determined by the Commonwealth. Here, Canberra is offering a Hobson's Choice: either agree to the conditions imposed by Canberra or miss out on the money.

The Canberra-imposed conditions are supposed to achieve allegedly desirable national goals or socially worthy outcomes across the country. But administering these grants always involves some extra level of bureaucracy in Canberra, requiring extra costs for dubious value.

But the Sports Rorts Affair, involving as it did, a form of direct funding, raises a more sinister implication. Far from achieving some desirable social goal, these grants can be used to manipulate the political agenda across the whole spectrum of service delivery throughout Australia.

More importantly, they can effectively disenfranchise voters. People vote for State Governments based on their policies put forward at elections. Few voters realise that such policies can be effectively altered, watered down or even overturned altogether by State Governments which are forced to implement what Canberra wants, not what the government was elected to do.

Commonwealth payments to Western Australia as tied grants now account for 53% of total payments we receive from the Commonwealth, up from 44% ten years ago and 25% in the 1960s. The power of the purse has become a formidable weapon in the Federal Government's hands. It is used with unrelenting force to enlarge the sphere of the Commonwealth and diminish that of the States.

There is no doubt that the Federal Government would like to get rid of the Senate and freeze out the States by dealing directly with local government bodies. Their policy, whether written and published or not, calls for the abolition of the States and establishing regional governments based on local authorities. Mr Keating's decision to set up a Regional Development portfolio and the recently released Kelty report are clear evidence of the Labor Government's real intentions.

It's not going to be easy to halt Canberra's power grab, given the attitude of the current government in Canberra and its entrenched, self-serving bureaucracy, and even harder to win back control of rightful State responsibilities. But countries like Switzerland, Germany and the United States show the long term advantages of a sound federal system, with builtÄin checks and balances. Federations with an appropriate balance of power between levels of government can work very effectively.

Having discussed the broad federalism picture, I now turn to perhaps the most malignant manifestation in modern times, the Native Title Act of the Commonwealth. Few would argue that Eddie Mabo and his fellow people from the island of Mer were entitled to some appropriate form of title to their traditional lands.

We question the High Court's extension of its decision about Eddie Mabo's claim, to include the whole of Australia, where traditional land use is very different indeed from that of the Murray Islands. But the High Court's leap of imagination pales to nothing compared with the Federal Labor Government's cynical exploitation of this social issue. Canberra has used the Mabo issue as a smoke screen to grab even more power from the States.

The Native Title Act goes well beyond the letter and spirit of the High Court's judgement in the Mabo cases and represents the most fundamental attack on State powers and functions since Federation. The Act is aimed principally at restricting the free exercise by State Governments of their power to govern.

The Act gives common law native title the force of an Act of the Commonwealth, thus elevating this law, made by non-elected judges, above laws made by democratically elected State Parliaments. If the Commonwealth can get away with this, what other areas of the common law will it exploit next to over-ride or by-pass the States.

By using both the external affairs power and this most recent stratagem to elevate the common law above State law, Canberra has gained a massive one-two punch, which the States will feel landed on their battered bodies again and again in the period ahead, unless we do something about it.

As most of you will know, my Government has decided to challenge the Native Title Act in the High Court. We decided to do this after very searching legal analysis. I am confident that Western Australia's response to the Mabo judgements our Land (Titles and Traditional Usage) Act will stand up to the challenges made against it and that the Native Title Act will be struck down.

We came up with a fair and workable solution to a complex High Court ruling. It is a huge issue in Western Australia as the majority of our State is yet to be developed, with 35% still vacant Crown land. Native Title, as created by the High Court, has been extinguished over most of Eastern Australia, the reverse is the case in Western Australia.

If you look at the new Federal industrial relations legislation you will see that it is hiding behind an ILO pact. This industrial relations package drawn up under pressure from the ACTU is a very backward step for this country. There has been the high sounding rhetoric from Mr Keating about the flexibility in the workforce, enterprise bargaining, efficiency, greater productivity and more jobs but the true story is that with the legislation in Western Australia, for example, the Commonwealth is using its external affairs power to come in over the top of our recent Workplace Agreements legislation in order to dictate what we do with industrial relations in this State. You are all now becoming aware of the difficulties that are going to be put in the way of employers to dismiss people: the fact that the unions now have an easy means by which they become involved in negotiations when so-called enterprise agreements have been negotiated. The Federal legislation rammed through the Federal parliament by Mr Brereton is a cop out and a very expensive sop to Messrs Kelty and Ferguson.

During the course of this conference you are going to hear a great deal about industrial relations issues including Western Australia's own Voluntary Workplace Agreements legislation and of all the things that we achieved in our first year in government, I think one of the most important was putting through legislation in this State to ensure for the first time for many many decades that there is now a system of choice where people, if they choose, can opt out of the centralised system and they can choose to negotiate individual agreements or enterprise agreements outside of that arbitration system. The overhaul of our industrial relations system has been responsible, innovative and moderate, and it has been supported by most political and industrial relations commentators. Mr Brereton is using the ILO Conventions to enable his legislation to override our State legislation. Unions which know they can retain their power under Brereton's laws are signalling their intention to move to Federal Awards. The major building unions are already doing so but I can assure you we, hopefully with the support of the other States, are going to be challenging this legislation in the High Court and the advice we have to date is most encouraging.

You may have read last week's Bulletin. There was a satirical piece about this particular ILO Convention. The story says that the Convention is signed by, and I quote:

pioneers of progressive economic management such as Albania, Zaire and the USSR now deceased and other interested parties from which we have much to learn.

The Brereton reforms have been denounced by many experts and their inadequacies will soon be exposed as being to the detriment of the national economy and our own workforce. The Federal Government is going to spend literally hundreds of millions of dollars on employment programmes which they are going to announce in a few weeks' time to try to solve the soÄcalled unemployment problem, particularly the long term unemployed problem. They are doing this at the same time as they are putting obstacles in the way of employers actually wanting to employ people. The comments that were made in the opening address about the innovative ways in which we have created unemployment are just so true, and I believe that the employers themselves need to fight harder. I am not criticising all employer organisations, but many business groups did not fight hard enough to make the public aware of what Mr Brereton's proposals were going to do.

Many people Ä particularly in the Canberra Press Gallery Ä seem to believe that the Keating Government's PR machine is both credible and authoritative. The Federal Government says its industrial relations legislation will bring real reform. The PR machine amplifies the story. The Press Gallery swallows it. And so we have a chorus of approval and no reality checks. We are not getting the full story. The private sector has got to get in there and make sure that they strongly present their side of the argument. The Opposition itself, I believe, should have done more to outline clearly to the business community, particularly the small business community, what this legislation was going to do. But, regrettably, we have got a situation where we now have no option but to fight the legislation in the Courts and to fight it politically as we lead up to the next election.

I mentioned that the Federal Government was going to spend a great deal of money on these employment creation programmes. The unemployment situation in Western Australia has started to trend down and we are very pleased that we have been running the highest employment growth figures now for approximately the past twelve months. It has been a positive trend and unemployment in Western Australia is now down to 8.3%. I am told by the statisticians that if Western Australia had the same participation rate as the Australian average, our unemployment would actually be down to around 3%. We have a very high participation rate in this State and I believe that the other States must understand what tremendous amounts of investment have been flowing into this State and the employment that they are creating. New private sector investment grew at 10% while the national average was 2%, and when you have strong growth in new private sector investment the unemployment figures start coming down, and yet the Federal Government is doing everything it can, particularly with the Native Title legislation and some other policies which I will raise, to make it unattractive to invest in Western Australia. And if our economy is not performing, an economy that is providing 25% of Australia's export income now Australia's largest export income earning State you damage our State and you damage the rest of Australia.

The Federal Government's legislation on industrial relations, like its Mabo legislation, was incredibly confused, difficult to understand, and parliament wasn't given a real chance to analyse it. If we had sat back and allowed the Federal Government to introduce its Native Title legislation and not put up a fight, we would have had a similar situation. Mabo was presented by Mr Keating as a fait accompli. We were told it was foolproof, the States would be protected but the more questions we asked the more holes we found. There is no doubt that the Federal Native Title legislation will cause tremendous havoc in this State if we have to operate under it.

I attended a number of briefings with the Federal Government people where we outlined our concerns about the legislation. We would never even get the courtesy of an answer. We had our best legal brains explaining the different problems that would arise and we were speaking from a State which has had tremendous experience in managing land titles systems and mining titles systems where, as you know, thousands of applications a month are successfully processed, and they just weren't prepared to listen to any of the concerns. They went ahead and made a decision, obviously a policy decision, that Western Australia would be ignored, would be treated as peripheral to the debate, and we have now got this Federal Government legislation whether it is good for Western Australia or not. When you consider that Western Australia is the main State affected by it, you should really be concerned about the way our Federal system is operating.

There is something else happening in this country that all Australians should be concerned about. We have mentioned industrial relations and we have mentioned the Native Title legislation, but the environment is an area where we are also running into a major problem. I don't know whether you have heard of the Intergovernmental Agreement on the Environment. This agreement is very much an encroachment on the States' responsibilities and it is an encroachment which can be put in the same category as the Federal Native Title legislation. To all intents and purposes, it is the plausible word about the commendable co-operation of the States and the Commonwealth to protect the environment. It is supposed to be the friendly accommodation of common interests between the two tiers of government. Sounds cosy. Sounds very laudable but that is until you see the centralist trap that has been put into this proposal. This agreement is nothing more than a Canberra-led invasion of State responsibilities. It encompasses 49 different treaties under the auspices of the United Nations and under these treaties there are 70 objectives and 384 commitments. What is happening under this agreement could give the Commonwealth powers to decide policy on pollution, air, water, noise, contaminated sites, hazardous wastes, waste recycling and motor vehicle emissions. That is just for starters. Using the lofty sounding UN ideals, the Commonwealth will intrude on almost every State service from fisheries to health. During recent years when most of the States were Labor controlled, much of the agreement on the environment was progressed quietly but quite dramatically.

To implement the policy, the Government has the National Environment Protection Council. You have all heard about vertical fiscal imbalance. Here we are talking about vertical knowledge imbalance. The Commonwealth has the money but the States themselves are the people with the experience and the knowledge and the people that are already delivering those services on the ground. If we go ahead with this Federal Government proposal, there will be massive duplication, inefficiencies, and another burden on the taxpayers. There will be little or no environmental benefit but it gives the Federal Government major control over a number of areas. This is not fairy land stuff. In the weeks before Ros Kelly left, she was starting to dictate to us on a property development in Mandurah where we have applied the most stringent environmental standards. We have made the developer protect all of the wet lands involved in that particular area, and yet Ros Kelly was still coming over here saying that if we approved it there would be Federal Government intervention. The fact of life is that if Canberra were to disappear tomorrow, nothing would change. The place would keep going; all the services would continue to be delivered.

There may be some minority criticism but, by and large, in this State we have pioneered and developed extremely high environmental standards. We don't see environment as a problem in this State. As a State that is newly developing, we have some wonderful pristine areas, and with planning and with technology we are able to protect those areas. We see in many of the other States that there have been a number of pollution problems which, fortunately, we haven't experienced in this State. We are proud of the high standards that we put in place and we are certainly very proud of the experience and the expertise that we have built up to deal with our problems.

The United Nations' standards which the Commonwealth seeks to impose on us are largely corrective measures generally aimed at trying to reverse the environmental damage in the industrialised countries. We are coming from a different direction. We are yet to develop large parts of our State. We are going to do it in a responsible way and, in the years ahead, one of the major attractions of this State is that we are going to promote it as a State with the best possible environment in which to live, work and operate. In other words, we don't have to worry about some of the problems that the United Nations has been addressing, but the Intergovernmental Agreement on the Environment and the Native Title Act represent some of the most fundamental attacks on the State's powers since federation, particularly the environment attack which has been carried on quietly over a ten year period. We are now working on a campaign to make the public realise that Western Australia, as a sovereign State, is quite capable of handling that particular area without having this insidious duplication and interference coming in from the Federal Government. We are waging, in this State, a war, a fight, so that our State roles and responsibilities can be protected.

With the Mabo situation, we are confident that our own legislation is truly a responsible response to the High Court ruling. We weren't happy with the ruling but we have to live with it and we have introduced our legislation to give a fair and workable solution to that complex High Court ruling. Our legislation is working. The aboriginal groups are becoming involved in the decision-making process and I hope that by the time the court challenge is heard, we shall have a lot of evidence to show that our legislation is a workable solution. The Mabo decision is not a big concern to many people in the eastern part of Australia but it is a massive issue here because of the fact that a large part of the State can be claimed.

So when we talk about these areas of States' responsibilities being taken across to Canberra, it is interesting to note that whenever these matters are put to a referendum it is usually the States that win out. The four questions that were put up at the last referendum in 1988 all targeted removing States' responsibilities and they resulted in a humiliating defeat for the Hawke Government. It prompted Mr Hawke's deputy, Lionel Bowen, to suggest that Australians were not mature enough to understand the meaning of the issues. I think they understood them alright and they rejected them.

I could go on and give you many examples of how this Federal Government is chipping away at the sovereignty of the States. The tied grants system gives us a Hobson's choice. 'We'll give you the money', Mr Keating says, 'but only if you use it in the way the Commonwealth wants you to'. Tied grants are now accounting for an increasingly growing percentage of the total payments that we receive from the Federal Government. We produced some statistics this year that showed in a ten year period, just over the last ten years alone, the percentage of the Commonwealth tax revenues being sent back to the States was declining considerably to the point that if the States received the same percentage of those Commonwealth tax revenues as they did ten years ago they would be receiving $4 billion per annum more than they currently receive. In a State like Western Australia that would be $400 million, and I can assure you we wouldn't have any budgetary problems if we were receiving that same percentage. You ask what is happening with the money? The Federal Government is collecting an ever increasing share and keeping an ever increasing share of those funds, handing less out to the States, and that leaves it with a pool of funds that it can handle at its discretion. In the next few months when you hear of the huge funds being handed out for land acquisition programmes and some of the employment programmes and regional programmes, you will know that it has plenty of money to play with.

In summary, what we have in this country is the gradual dismantling of State sovereignty, the takeover of State services and the unfair, win-at-all-costs, tactics of the Keating Government to suppress the States. The Commonwealth has brought Mabo to fruition without genuine consultation and its tentacles are now reaching out to take control in areas like environment, industrial relations, education, health, and the list goes on. What are we going to do about it? In July this year the Premiers will be meeting informally in Sydney to consider putting together a paper on the roles and responsibilities of the States in our Federation. The States are now starting to realise that the trend has been going the wrong way for too long and I think that is an important step; we have already done a lot of our initial work here. But just the fact that we have been able to get the States to come together in this way without the Federal Government being involved means, hopefully, that we will be able to present a more united approach to the Federal Government and to the public. For too long the Premiers have been going into these COAG meetings and Premiers Conferences divided and prepared to accept whatever the agenda Mr Keating presents on that particular day. This time we are attempting to be more united. It might sound simple, being all coalition premiers, apart from Wayne Goss, but I can assure you it is not an easy job.

My concept of rebuilding the federation was just the start of a concerted campaign to regain our lost powers and recognition of our sovereignty. The scene really is set for real change. Around the world we are seeing countries being prepared to grant more autonomy back out into the regions. We are seeing it happen in China. India won't go ahead in a strong way until they are able to get rid of their bureaucratic controls and give more autonomy back to their areas.

With other States, Western Australia is forming an alliance of real strength which the Commonwealth, I believe, will find more and more difficult to resist. It is an alliance which will reject the growing interference from these international treaties and covenants such as I have outlined tonight. It will give impetus to the optimism and confidence which we have generated in this State since we came to power just over a year ago. We are going to continue to turn things around in this State in more ways than one and we want to play our role in ensuring that the national debate is also aware of these issues. So what we have in Australia is the greatest attack on personal choice and freedom which is being imposed, not by a despotic invader, but by stealth from within the country. The people of Australia should now demand a return of the personal freedom that they have lost through this creeping centralism. They should now demand from their political leaders and parties a commitment to return government back to the people. They should demand a commitment that decision-making should be made closer to the people as was always the intention of the system of government that was established in this country at federation. They should certainly demand a commitment from their political leaders that they do everything within their capacity to ensure that this happens. In this State that is certainly the course we are going to follow.

But the battle about Canberra's move to centralism and legislative moves like the Native Title Act will not be won in the legal arena, whatever the outcome of the current challenges. The States, acting together, must take these issues directly to the people. Most ordinary Australians do not come into contact with these major constitutional questions. Not one person in a thousand has ever read the Constitution. Few realise there are State Constitutions. Fewer still understand how these crucially important issues can affect their daily lives.

Therefore, we face a huge educational task to show people the insidious danger now slowly enveloping their country. Australia is rapidly becoming a very centralised nation. If left unchecked, the current trends will see us with a system of government resembling the late and unlamented centralist governments of the Eastern Bloc. Centralist economies all over the world have failed. The countries involved are now rapidly decentralising. Why then is the Prime Minister pursuing this discredited system of government?

The Premiers will meet in Sydney in July to consider the respective roles and responsibilities of the Commonwealth and States. I hope we will see a beginning of the corrective actions the States themselves must take to stop Canberra's power grab and return to the States their constitutional responsibilities. Other Premiers have expressed grave concerns in recent weeks about the future of the Federation.

I have some confidence that this concern will produce agreement among the Premiers to put a united position to the Prime Minister concerning the key questions of fiscal inequality between the Commonwealth and the States and the restoration of a proper balance between the roles and responsibilities of the two tiers of government. These matters will be first items on the agenda for the Council of Australian Governments meeting scheduled for August in Darwin.

Mr President, I thank you for the opportunity tonight to be able to outline to this group of people that has come from all over Australia, and representing all walks of life, what we, in this State, consider to be of great concern to us, and that is the weakening of our federation. That weakening that is taking away many of the choices we should have in our society but I don't want you to get the impression that I am pessimistic. We are running our campaign in a positive way. I hope by showing to the States, by putting the runs on the board in this State with our performance, by the tremendous growth and investment in employment, the other States will realise that without Canberra interference, without Canberra controls, there is so much more that can be done.

If by the turn of the century we in Australia haven't got the highest living standards in the world, we will have failed badly because we have been given everything. We have been given a wonderful country full of natural resources. We have a relatively small population. We have all of the countries around us that are just full of growth, and we can't get away from growth in this particular region. If we can't grasp those opportunities and ensure that we have full employment and when I talk about high living standards, I am talking about good living standards in all senses around the word including full employment in just over five years' time, we don't deserve those opportunities.

I wish you every success with your deliberations, and it is with much pleasure that I officially open your conference.

Why HR Nicholls?

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