National Cabinet at critical juncture

The Council of Australian Governments (COAG) had many failings and the newly introduced National Cabinet now presents the opportunity to advance key policy issues and not follow down COAG's path, according to both the Former Premier of Victoria, the Hon. John Brumby AO and Griffith University Principal Research Fellow, Jennifer Menzies.

Speaking on the success and failings of Australia’s Federation, they said COAG had ultimately failed in the last decade and that the newly introduced National Cabinet had so far produced positive results in dealing with the COVID-19 health crisis.

“Australian governments and the Australian people usually respond well in a crisis,” Mr Brumby said.

“We saw this post GFC as well, we’ve seen it with other pandemics, we saw it with other health crises with aids going right back in the 80s when I was in Federal Parliament; generally, governments respond well.

“Textbook response in a crisis is openness, transparency, sharing information and taking the people with you and the Prime Minister and the state Premiers have done that.”

Mr Brumby said that National Cabinet throughout COVID had been a great example of seeing evidence-based policy implemented, less “chest beating” by Premiers and leaders and jurisdictional flexibility for Premiers to implement a broad policy agenda in their states.

These were all shortcomings of COAG, he said.

“I was a great believer in COAG, in the Federation and the power of the Federation to work together cooperatively but I think the truth is in recent years, it was failing,” he said.

“Could it have been revived? It probably could have been, with a different set of rules and a different agenda, but it had lost its relevance and it wasn't working.

“Over the last decade we've had a lot of Prime Ministers and there have been varying degrees of commitment from those Prime Ministers to a national body. Some have been very strong supporters of the Federation and a National Cabinet or a COAG, others have been less supportive.

“It didn't have the political will at the top to survive in its present form.

“There also wasn't a clear agenda.

“I think it failed too because it became more of a political tool, this sort of chest beating thing.

“We saw Prime Ministers use it in a political way, Prime Ministers put things on the agenda literally the night before and then the states used it as an opportunity for a bit of spoon feeding.

“There was no ownership by the states, they didn't have a big enough say in the forward agenda of COAG so there was no shared Commonwealth-State ownership.

“Post GFC, COAG did work well and that's why Australia was one of the very few countries in the world to get through the GFC without going into recession, because it had a clear purpose then.

“Where there's a clear purpose COAG worked well. The most fundamental thing I think whatever structure you've got in place, is to have a very clear forward agenda and not just have a meeting at the Prime Minister of the day’s whim.”

Ms Menzies said that one of the biggest issues COAG had was Commonwealth dominance.

“It wanes at the whim of the Prime Minister. COAG meets a whole lot of coercive practices and a whole lot of a strange kind of a cultural element from the Commonwealth, so that the Prime Minister sets the agenda. So you end up with issues that are important to the Commonwealth not the states,” she said.

“Because of the extreme fiscal imbalance in Australia the states can be brought to the table because of the financial clout of the Federal Government, so you end up with instead of a cooperative federalism what some academics have coined a cooperative centralism, so we will cooperate with the states and territories as long as you centralize and do with what you want us to do.

“The only media story you ever get out of COAG is a conflict in the lead-up as the different state and territory leaders put their position, we all know that kind of endless politicking puts people off, so I think COAG suffered from that.

“At the moment National Cabinet still suffers from those kinds of critical defects that we've identified.

“There’s still no greater clarity about what the agenda is going to be, so what constitutes a national issue, so once we get through the COVID-19 crisis, how it’s going to work, but I think it'll operate differently from the way it did before.

“A way to differentiate COAG from National Cabinet and to actually show that it is fundamentally changed is to take all those issues and have a formal intergovernmental agreement between all the states and territories in the Commonwealth around how the National Covenant will operate, what is a national issue, establish the independent Secretariat.

“Those protocols, those codes of conduct and I think that that would actually demonstrate to people look this is not COAG, we have a whole different set of operating principles and this is what we'll stick to.”