National Cabinet plays with a newfound unity, but will it last

Capital Monitor Editorial

Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Acting Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly emerged from the latest National Cabinet meeting on Friday the 10th of July 2020 to announce the latest in what the nation’s leaders had agreed to. It was the first time National Cabinet convened since the new spike of Covid-19 cases in Victoria, and while the Prime Minister described the outbreak as “concerning”, he also said that Victoria had been given all the support it needed from the Commonwealth and other states and territories to fight this crisis. Part of this support would be in the form of extra clinical staff, national coordination, and 265 Australian Defence Force personnel.

ADF personnel had by now been requested by Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews, with resources intended to assist in enforcing government-imposed measures such as hotel quarantine, and the lockdown of a growing number of suburbs in Melbourne. Mandatory quarantine had been the subject of discussions at the Cabinet meeting already, as the newly formed body agreed to a national review of arrangements in place. The review, headed by former Secretary of the Commonwealth Department of Health, Jane Halton, is expected to address infection prevention and control training for those enforcing quarantine, compliance with said requirements, the community’s rates of compliance with testing, legislative basis for mandatory testing, and the management of support services for those quarantined, among other matters.

Though not directly specified in the Prime Minister’s press conference at its launch, the review appears to be incited by Victoria’s outbreak being traced back to lax enforcement of quarantine measures on returning travellers. The number of international travellers arriving in Australia would drop, Cabinet decided, as Perth agreed to cap their international arrivals intake at 525 per week, Brisbane at 500, and Sydney at 450. All this with a view to even further reductions in the coming weeks. For the foreseeable future, Victoria would not be accepting any international travellers, as other states agreed to absorb additional numbers in the meantime.

New support measures, the redistribution of international flights, and consensus on the review are the latest in National Cabinet decisions that display a newfound unity between members. While the enormity of the coronavirus pandemic has undoubtedly contributed to cooperation between different tiers of government, it was a trait that was increasingly rare in the final years of National Cabinet’s predecessor, the Council of Australian Governments (COAG).

Like National Cabinet, COAG was comprised of the Prime Minister, state and territory leaders, along with the President of the Australian Local Government Association (ALGA). It had emerged out of a Premiers’ Conferences, a meeting of state leaders in 1895, with the intent of forming a federation. After Australia became a federation in 1901, the Premier’s Conferences continued to be held once or twice a year. On 11th of May 1992, Prime Minister Paul Keating formalised these regular meetings by establishing the permanent body of COAG.

The original role of COAG was to increase cooperation among governments in the national interest, with its first goal being “structural reform to create an integrated national economy and single national market”. A significant part of this reform was Mr Keating and all Premiers and Chief Ministers signing off on an agreement related to mutual recognition. This agreement was designed to “eliminate regulatory impediments to a national market”, such as the permit of goods sold lawfully in one state or territory to be sold in any other. Efforts toward a national market were also included in the endless reviews of financial arrangements between the Commonwealth and other COAG members. After GST was introduced in 2000, this involved the distribution of revenue to the states and territories, a constant point of contention for members who all vied for a bigger slice of the pie, and the subject of several Productivity Commission reports.

Then, who could forget the relentless sore spot for COAG members in the debate around the Murray Darling Basin Plan, and water allocation between states. While southern states such as South Australia always argued that they were not getting their fair share of water, states further up the Murray Darling criticised SA for not doing their bit when it came to managing the river systems. As drought gradually worsened in the years after COAG’s formation such debates only became more bitter, failing to resolve, or accomplish anything by the time COAG dissolved.

National Cabinet was cut out of the need to help Australia coordinate a national response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Due to social distancing restrictions in place, it initially met exclusively online, before the Prime Minister would front the press at Parliament House to report on what had been discussed. This stands in stark contrast to COAG meetings, where leaders would rotate between the capitals of each state and territory to meet in person. A seemingly trivial variance borne out of necessity, yet it has already been cited as one reason for National Cabinet’s current success. Previously, the media would interview participants before and after COAG meetings, as members came and went, and it wouldn’t take long before those in the meetings began to use this to their advantage. Interviews served the opportunity for theatrics, with members voicing bold demands before a meeting, or storming out of one early, as they knew that cameras were already rolling.

A stop to that was announced on 29th of May 2020, as COAG was dismantled and replaced by the newly formed National Federation Reform Council (NFRC), with National Cabinet at its centre. PM Morrison said at the time that COAG had become a place where good ideas went to die, and that National Cabinet monthly online meetings, plus some formal rules would help avoid issues plaguing the former body. In the wake of the pandemic, the National Cabinet would initially be driven by a single agenda, which was to create jobs. Like COAG, it is comprised of subcommittees such as health, energy, housing, transport, infrastructure, migration, regional development and education, all of which are driven by the same job-creating agenda. Off to a good start, only the test of time will show if the National Cabinet can retain its laser focus when other issues creep up beyond the Covid-19 pandemic.

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