Monday, 1 December 2008

Air travel and the centralisation of government

Not a day goes by without a level of government buggerizing around and interfering with the next level of government down. The Feds get involved in state issues, and the states mess around with local government.

Why can't they just look after their own patch and be done with it? Aren't they busy enough with their own problems without wanting to interfere in the problems of others? Just look at the debacle of the Federal mob and their computer rollout. Education is an issue for the states, but the feds just couldn't keep their big, fat fingers out of it. Idiots.

Health is another area where they are always barging in and trying to fix the "mess" created by the states - and never stopping to think that their constant meddling might have created most of that mess in the first place.

Today I read that the feds want some sort of health scorecard to be rolled out nationwide. Oh, goodie. Another department full of public servants generating numbers that no one will ever read. Doctors and nurses will now faff around filling out yet another form every time they treat a drunk in Emergency, and have less time to deal with the kid with the fractured skull. I bet of course that the introduction of the scorecard will not be accompanied by any additional funding - the health providers will just be expected to magically conjure up the extra hours required each week to produce the numbers.

If you ask me, this is all caused by air travel.

I have blogged before about one of my grandfathers, who was a state MP back around the start of the 20th century. The commute from his electorate to the State Parliament was 5 hours by train (you can do it in 90 minutes by car these days). When first elected, he made his way around the electorate on a horse, later replaced by a car.

I bet that in those days, because of the travel restrictions, local problems tended to have local solutions. You couldn't just pick up the phone and talk to a bureaucrat in the Big Smoke (mainly because there were no phones, and possibly not much in the way of telegraph lines either). Local government was self sufficient - it had to be. Communications did not allow the state government, a whole five hours away, to interfere. They were too distant.

Imagine what it was like for Sir John Forrest to travel from Perth to Melbourne for a sitting of Federal Parliament. He had to go by ship, and I presume it took quite a few days to get there. Sending telegrams was expensive, so only the most vital issues warranted a telegram, and even then, I bet they were short.

Again, because of the issues of distance and poor communications, the feds did not concern themselves overly with state issues - those were for the states to deal with.

Then came air travel.

The truncation of travel times, and the lowering of the cost of interstate phone calls, started the ball rolling, but I think that up until the time of Whitlam, the mindset of the feds was to stay out of state issues. They had grown up in the era of long travel times and sending telegrams, and they would not have ever considered interfering - it was just not the done thing.

Once Whitlam started dicking around, the dam was breached. Better jet aircraft and falling phone costs did the rest. When I was a kid, you just didn't call interstate - STD charges were too high. You wrote a letter. Dialing overseas was also a no-no, and required going through an operator or two. You sent an aerogram. Hell, we hardly called our relatives 100 kilometres away because of the cost.

These days, it is just so damned easy to interfere. A Premier can charter a light aircraft and be in a country town 400km away in no time at all, flying in for a photo opportunity and a splash of cash. It is easy for bureaucrats and policy advisors and MPs to drive or fly somewhere, quickly look into a problem and whip up a solution - instead of leaving it to the locals to sort it out themselves.

The state-federal-local government arrangements that we setup in 1901 were setup based on the communications and transport technologies that existed back then, and they've been slowly corrupted ever since by faster and cheaper transport of people and data. This has led to calls for the abolition of one level of government - usually the states.

Personally, I don't believe in that. I think we'd be better off if people could just mind their own damned business, and stick to their patch for a while. Instead of abolishing the state governments, how about abolishing the federal departments of education and health?

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