John Howard was right about COAG.

Despite some initial efforts at taking it seriously, particularly when there were Liberal government everywhere but in NSW, eventually he stopped treating it as a serious policy forum, and preferred to let creeping centralisation, via mechanisms such as the corporations power, do the trick.

Kevin Rudd took it seriously, talked of revitalising it and gave it a busy agenda, only for it to degenerate into a simple auction where premiers demanded ever-higher bribes as their price for cooperating with sensible national reform. As it turned out, COAG dawdled even on the minor, 5%-type reforms that it agreed. The alleged “national water market” is a fine example of COAG efficiency in action.

Yesterday was the same spectacle as we witnessed a couple of times a year for the past three years. In trooped the state premiers, some not even elected, others freshly minted by elections and convinced of their own democratic superiority over everyone else. Again the “billions” were thrown around, and declarations of how massive the reforms would be. Communiques and attachments were fired out, there was talk of “streamlining the agenda”, of five “themes of strategic importance”, reformed ministerial council arrangements, and so on and so on.

Like the T-shirt says, your lips are moving but all I hear is blah blah blah.

Take housing, for example. The fact that we don’t build enough housing stock is one of our most serious economic problems. It’s an issue tailor-made for a body such as COAG to try to resolve, because COAG also includes local government and housing supply takes in key Commonwealth-state issues around infrastructure provision. And last year it was prominently on the COAG agenda, with treasuries tasked to work on a review and several studies ordered, nearly all to be completed by the middle or end of 2010.

Since then, the slashing of our migration intake and the rising Australian dollar has taken some of the political heat out of the issue, without doing much about the long-term problems of poor infrastructure co-ordination and supply and tortuous development approval processes.

Was there any mention of housing yesterday? Nope. There’ll be a “standing” ministerial council on the issue, but all the work that COAG committed to previously on housing supply and affordability that was supposed to have been done by the end of last year seems to have fallen off the agenda, just like that.

All the attention was focused on health, naturally, an issue on which never have so many had so much to say on so little.

The Rudd health reforms contained two positive steps: the move to activity-based funding, and the development of proper national performance information and reporting standards. They failed to deliver the most crucial reform, the move to a single health funding provider. Instead, we were left with the Commonwealth claiming moral bragging rights as “dominant funder” without providing the sort of structure that could seriously drive efficiency.

It was a minor, sensible economic reform package, grossly oversold by Rudd as the greatest since, variously, Medicare or Federation.

Nor did it have much to do with the health outcomes of a system that, if you’re an urban Australian, delivers pretty much world’s best, and mostly for free. The sordid secret that no one — not the Rudd government, not the states, not the federal Opposition and not the media — would discuss during last year’s health debate was that it was principally about catering to the media-induced fears of the worried well in highly serviced metropolitan areas.

The agreement reached last night, with some low farce, leaves intact the good bits of the Rudd package, fails to add to them — the single national funding pool will be an accounting entity only and have no real teeth — and adds significantly to Commonwealth outlays in the second half of the decade.

By which time few of the leaders present last night will be around. Indeed, one won’t be here in a few weeks’ time. Quite why COAG was conducted with the presence of Kristina Keneally rather than Barry O’Farrell is one of the sublimer mysteries of a farcical process.

Howard had the right idea. He let the states have their occasional COAG meeting, but got on with governing without it. Sensible chap.

Get Crikey for $1 a week.

Lockdowns are over and BBQs are back! At last, we get to talk to people in real life. But conversation topics outside COVID are so thin on the ground.

Join Crikey and we’ll give you something to talk about. Get your first 12 weeks for $12 to get stories, analysis and BBQ stoppers you won’t see anywhere else.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
12 weeks for just $12.