The heart of my recent book is the conservative case for change, which might otherwise be thought of as going against the conservative grain.
Australian conservatives have typically made a virtue of our federal system of government.
The states, it's thought, can act as a break on the arrogance of the national government and deliver services that are "closer to the people" than those delivered by a more "remote" government in Canberra.
As anyone studying, for instance, the history of water management in the Murray-Darling basin would have to concede, the states are far more often a handbrake on good government than they are a bulwark against potential dictatorship.
Search as one might, it's very hard to find the examples of bad commonwealth government policy blocked by the states that would render plausible the "states protect our freedom" argument.
Similarly, at least since Queensland abolished death duties in the 1970s, there are no readily discernible examples of good policy adopted by one state and then copied by the others that would render plausible the argument that "states are a laboratory for policy change".
Anyone comparing commonwealth government health programs (such as Medicare and the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme delivered by private doctors and pharmacists) with state government ones (such as public hospitals run by giant bureaucracies) would have to conclude that Canberra understands the subsidiarity principle far better than the states.
The states might be closer to the people in federalist theory but that's rarely evidenced by responsive service delivery. In theologising about the states, conservatives lapse into the error more often found in other doctrines of preferring theory over practice.
Addressing requests that the commonwealth government take over public hospitals, John Howard made the perfectly valid point that Canberra bureaucrats would be no better at running a hospital than state ones. Unfortunately, he neglected to observe that Canberra bureaucrats would no more try to run public hospitals than they do nursing homes which are commonwealth-funded and regulated but privately run.
Australian conservatives' attachment to the states seems a distant echo of the arguments used by the South in pre-Civil War America rather than a reflection of any actual purpose that the states serve at present. It's a sharp contrast with the attitude of conservatives at Westminster who have never feared for British democracy in the absence of states and who almost universally opposed the creation of regional parliaments for Scotland and Wales, on the grounds that it would turn government into a three-legged race.
Our own Federation fathers were quite unsentimental about the states. None of them had thought that a third level of government, pre-federation, needed to be imported into the governance of the individual colonies to prevent tyranny. Far from being a manifestation of the Federation fathers' philosophical commitment, the states exist as the unavoidable price of turning six colonies into one country. If the Federation fathers had expected to set in concrete the then divisions of responsibilities between the states and the fledgling national government, they would hardly have provided for mechanisms to change them.
Perhaps the most universally applauded Howard government policy initiative was the emergency intervention into the remote townships of the Northern Territory. The Little Children are Sacred report was by no means the first detailing the breakdown of civil society in remote areas. It was, though, the first report dealing exclusively with a territory.
Under the Constitution, the commonwealth has authority over the territories that it lacks over the states. The territories are subordinate legislatures in a way that the states are not. This meant that the commonwealth could launch and sustain an intervention in the Territory that would have been impossible in any of the states.
It's noteworthy that when the former minister, Mal Brough, offered to fund an intervention in the Kimberley, which had social problems of equal magnitude, the West Australian government refused.
My proposal is not to abolish the states but a referendum to give the national parliament the same authority over them that it's long had over the territories. It's not a bid for more power to Canberra. Rather, it's an attempt to establish clear lines of accountability and responsibility.
If realised, the premiers would at last justly be able to blame the prime minister when things go badly wrong because the national government would finally be in charge. It would give the national government the legal authority needed to match the financial and political authority it has long possessed. Because it's no more than the minimum needed to tackle the dog's breakfast of divided responsibilities that's made the federation dysfunctional, it could more properly be described as an exercise in conservative incrementalism than a radical change.
Similarly, conservatives have had reservations about paid maternity leave schemes because, they think, mothers' primary responsibility is to their children. The further argument that paid maternity leave (but not sick leave, holiday pay or compulsory superannuation levies) would be an intolerable burden on small business has helped to cast, I suspect, a "blokey" pall over conservatism.
Perhaps more than anything else, this suggestion that mothers in the paid workforce might be shirking their real responsibilities explains why there are so few outspoken conservative women. Only a man could think that working might reduce a mother's responsibilities rather than add to them.
In any event, the absence of a national paid maternity leave scheme has certainly not ensured that the vast majority of women remain primarily homemakers. Instead, it's meant that many have not had the children that they might have had but for the lack of better financial support. Far from conceding too much to feminism, a paid maternity leave scheme would make it easier for more women to choose the most traditional role of all.
Conservatives change by working out what is a value and what is a mere prejudice. Not even the most reactionary conservative would today defend, for instance, the right to own slaves yet, in some circles and in some places that was once thought to be an article of conservative faith.
Today, of course, conservatives are glad to claim Wilberforce and Lincoln as part of their heritage. It's not so long since conservatives were defending legal discrimination against homosexuals yet that, too, has rightly disappeared from the conservative canon. It's only by working out what should change that we are able to keep that which most matters.
In response to serious problems, there has to be a conservative case for change. Alternatively, there has to be a powerful argument that the problem is more apparent than real. Perhaps confused lines of accountability and responsibility between different levels of government and haphazard arrangements to support mothers in the workforce are the best that can be hoped for in this vale of tears. I suspect, though, that the case for masterly inactivity would not be very convincing even to conservatives of the most incorrigible type.