Ensuring Australia’s economic sustainability

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National goal: Simplify the COAG agenda by focusing on issues of national importance and pushing responsibility to Ministerial Councils and spending Ministers. Clarify roles and responsibilities between the Commonwealth and the States, so COAG can achieve its vital objective of supporting policy reforms of national significance, or that need co-ordinated action by all Australian governments.

COAG must be allowed to focus on long-term projects, which drive a sustainable economy, lay the foundations for increased productivity and contribute to the overall betterment of the lives of citizens, such as transport and infrastructure, or environmental and sustainability issues.

COAG issues

  • COAG has disempowered spending Ministers
    The current construct of COAG has effectively diminished the authority of spending Ministers and given power back to the centre of government. Although the focus is aimed at outcomes, spending Ministers are still accountable for inputs. The aspiration of giving States more control by focusing on outcomes is good, but it’s not clear that the States have lived up to their end of the deal.
  • COAG has become a political construct, with a short-term focus
    When COAG’s power shifted from the spending Ministers to the centre, its focus moved from big picture, long-term projects, to details, accountability and short-term outcomes , which can be easily measured and scrutinised publicily. Short-term outcomes are also the key drivers during the relentless election cycle, as the ability to measure them provides easy metrics to generate votes in an election campaign. With Australia’s Federation model, there is rarely a time when an election, either at Federal of State/Territory level, is not on the horizon. This makes it even harder for COAG to keep long-term focus or agree on strategies without political inferences.
  • Size of the COAG agenda
    The agenda is suffering from overload, with items that cannot be resolved at the Ministerial level being pushed up to COAG. This is further compounded by a minority Government, which has seen COAG dealing with increased agreements and agenda items due to deals done with the Greens and Independents to form Government. Since COAG doesn’t meet very often, it is effectively hamstrung by trying to deal with the volume of items on the agenda which has taken its focus away from the things that COAG is good at, such as compliance, regulation , manufacturing and competitive advantages for our country.
  • Lack of clarity around the roles of the Commonwealth and States and Territories
    It is not clear where the Commonwealth’s power lies and how The Commonwealth and States operate together. Often the Commonwealth has no on-going relationships with the communities in which it targets, through some of the National Partnership Agreements or grants, and this has a tendency to create conflict with the States as the Commonwealth is playing in areas which are a State responsibility.

COAG recommendations

  • Simplify the COAG agenda to allow it to focus on issues of greatest impact for our country, such as manufacturing, health, regional infrastructure, and productivity.
  • Clarify roles and responsibilities of the Commonwealth and States in line with the constitutional powers of the Commonwealth.
  • Delegate more to Ministerial Councils and spending Ministers with limited funding decisions made by COAG.
  • Reduce the bureaucracy of managing agreements by streamlining Ministerial Councils and working groups.

COAG Conclusion

COAG has the potential to achieve consistency across boundaries, as demonstrated by successes in the areas of regulation and standardisation. However, COAG is an imperfect model, which blurs the lines of power between the Commonwealth and States.

Fundamentally, COAG’s agenda has been clogged which has largely made it ineffective and prevented it from focusing on issues of national importance and competitive advantage to our country.

Although COAG is not currently effective, it can work with the right focus and clarity of accountabilities. Irrespective, if it’s COAG or something else, there needs to be some mechanism which allows the Commonwealth and States to come together to discuss issues of national importance to aid the future prosperity of our country.