Ministerial meetings sound like the pointy end of Commonwealth-State relations. The heavy-hitters, the head honchos, the Ministers themselves get together and thrash out issues, mano e mano, cutting to the chase in the way wimpy bureaucrats never could.

In fact, ministerial meetings are highly formal affairs. Ministers sit down, proceed through a carefully prepared agenda and read out talking points, often on issues they don’t really understand fully and have only had a rushed briefing on the day before. Then a communiqué that bureaucrats have prepared beforehand is agreed, maybe fiddled with a little to please someone, and released. Cue photo opp.

COAG meetings of first ministers – the PM, Premiers and chief ministers – are even more like that, since no leader is across the detail of any of the areas that form the agenda and usually leave that sort of thing to their ministers. Even a control freak like Kevin Rudd won’t be across all the details of the number of dental assistants needed in regional communities.

So most of the outcomes of today’s meeting in Adelaide have already been prepared in advance, including the communiqué, which will doubtless herald breakthroughs on a range of issues and a demonstration that wall-to-wall Labor Governments can get results. But nearly all of the work on the COAG agenda is done by bureaucrats, meeting in working groups, which themselves spawn sub-working groups and sub-committees to laboriously slog through reform issues.

Typically, this consists of innumerable teleconferences in which bored public servants sit in offices in their respective capitals, stare out the window and wait for the inevitable point in the discussion when things grind to a halt because the States want money to do something and the Commonwealth refuses to give it.

It’s that simple, pretty much. Nearly all Commonwealth-State disagreements boil down to money – how much, and how it is allocated. But at least the Prime Minister’s professed willingness to provide more funding for areas such as the health workforce suggests he’ll go a lot further in securing agreement than the Howard Government.

The previous Government hated giving money to the states when it could spend it itself and claim credit. Even now there are COAG initiatives agreed under by the Howard Government that have yet to be implemented because of Howard’s refusal to countenance sharing any credit with state governments.

indeed, there are sometimes issues that only Ministers can resolve, where differences are essentially political in nature, and the politicians are best placed to make a judgement. Those sorts of things are decided on the sidelines, or at the pre-meeting dinners that seem to be an inescapable tradition of ministerial meetings no matter where you go. Victoria’s recalcitrance on the Murray-Darling might be one such issue, where John Brumby and Kevin Rudd can work something out that Penny Wong and Tim Holding haven’t been able to. And don’t be surprised if the solution involves some extra money somewhere along the line.

Peter Fray

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