Investigating the Australian state

Issue 

The State in Question: Transformations of the Australian State
Edited by Paul James
Allen and Unwin, 1996, $24.95
Reviewed by James Goodman

The Howard government has just announced a profound withdrawal of the state from Australian society. Federal budget cuts have been combined with new forms of privatisation to substantially transform the nature of the Australian state. Australia has been led still further down the road of economic rationalism, all on the pretext of filling a budget deficit.

These changes are put into context by The State in Question. Produced by the Politics Department at Monash University, this book offers theoretical perspectives on the issues and provides some suggestions as to how these issues might be addressed.

The first chapter asserts the need to analyse and problematise the state, a task that has too often been avoided. The US liberal tradition that dominates Australian political science takes the state for granted, while the more recent post-modernist approach de-constructs it out of existence. Both fail to analyse what the state could or should be doing and so play directly into the hands of those who want to replace public provision with the private market.

The challenge to analyse the state is taken up in chapters on republicanism, labour relations, feminism, green politics and welfare. Several of the authors explode myths about the Australian state, highlighting its failure to address issues of environmental degradation, class inequality and gender division. They also highlight the growing influence of free market ideology in government policy, combined with increasingly repressive state powers, in what one author describes as a transition from "activities of social provision to those of social control".

This negative assessment of how the Australian state has operated is combined in the book with a common belief in the potential for the state and public policy to address these pressing issues. Most authors argue that the state is a worthwhile site for political conflict. It serves private interests, but to do so it needs legitimacy and there lies its Achilles heel. The book argues that political movements can challenge this legitimacy and force important, albeit limited, changes in policies and structures.

The success or failure of these political projects hinges on the wider context. This is addressed in the final two chapters. One addresses Australian foreign policy and the changing global order, and the other economic globalisation.

Australia's more internationalist foreign policy in the early 1990s is presented as giving the Australian state new roles in inter-state organisations like APEC. This redefines Australian political culture, for instance by encouraging multiculturalism and republicanism. As global pressures increase, the barrier between domestic and foreign policy is weakened and new political agendas open up.

Less positively, the final chapter stresses that economic globalisation is driving these political redefinitions. The increased speed of communication, its worldwide spread and its ability to mould identity all undermine the role of the state. The resulting globalisation of capitalist culture is displacing state roles. Optimistically, the author of this chapter suggests that the existing national states will simply become one tier in a diversifying range of public authorities from local and community levels to international, regional and global levels.

Some aspects of this question were neglected in the book. For example, chapters on indigenous rights and multiculturalism are surely essential for any discussion of the Australian state. Also, the authors' proposals for action might have been developed more.

The State in Question will appeal to anyone wanting a broad background to current political developments in Australia. It offers a rarely available depth of discussion and is a powerful corrective to the biases of the mainstream media.