Last week Prime Minister announced “a completely new system” of intergovernmental relations institutions, processes and agendas that will replace the current Council of Australian Governments, COAG.
As part of these ‘new’ arrangements, the National Cabinet that operated during the pandemic will continue. There will also be a new body, the National Federation Reform Council, to drive intergovernmental relations reform. Its agenda is to be set by the National Cabinet. The problem is we do not know who will be on the new Council and its agenda has yet to be discussed, clarified, or announced.
There should be concerns too about the continuation of the National Cabinet given its failures during the pandemic to achieve national policy consistency on many key issues such as school re–openings, travel restrictions, border closures and the pace of restarting the economy that has done great harm to our children’s education, individual freedom and the employment of many Australians.
That the National Cabinet will operate in the future under the same rules and processes of Federal Cabinet will further enhance the power of executive government in Australia as experienced during the pandemic, to the detriment of parliaments, parties and the people with more decisions being made without community input.
A further concern is that the National Cabinet’s initial single agenda to “create jobs” is extraordinarily singular, narrow and is tackling a problem that it largely created.
The Prime Minister also stated there will be a rationalisation of COAG’s current twelve intergovernmental ministerial councils. How this is to be done and on what criteria is unclear. This has the potential to cause adverse impacts on existing agreements and negotiations that may be currently underway across a host of new programs.
Nor is it clear how the existing Council on Federal Financial Relations, composed as it is of all Treasurers, is to take over responsibility for all National Agreements currently operating under ministerial councils across a wide array of different policy areas.
The Morrison Government’s announcements looks too similar to previous attempts at intergovernmental relations reform that have been marked more by institutional reorganisations, nomenclature changes of existing bodies and grand plans with little attempt at clarifying end goals, to be positive at this stage of their value.
Scott Prasser is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies.
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