Feb 25, 2013

The COAG cycle of frustration goes ever on

COAG has devolved back to where it was six years ago. The cycle of failure will continue unless radical change is contemplated.

Bernard Keane — Politics editor

Bernard Keane

Politics editor

We've now completed another full revolution in the great Council of Australian Governments circle of life, and we are now back to where we were in 2007, when COAG had ground to a halt between a full slate of Labor state and territory governments and a Howard government facing defeat, when even actions on which all governments had previously agreed weren't progressing because it might reflect positively on the other side of politics. That's the basis for the Baillieu government's half-baked alternative school funding model that provides a pretext for Victoria to walk away from the Gonski proposals reform process, cheered on by the opposition and other conservative governments. All are aware that education funding is one of the three core aspects of Labor's election strategy, and all are aware the government has strong support for overhauling funding arrangements. Anything that can undermine the federal government's push on reform is politically beneficial for the opposition. Former COAG reform council chairman Paul McClintock has suggested that the federal government ditch Gonski as too hard and concentrate on NDIS and national regulatory uniformity. It's true that Labor has made more headway on NDIS: the Prime Minister struck a long-term deal with NSW premier Barry O'Farrell in December; there's also less scope for playing politics with the NDIS, and the Coalition has been forced to fall into line on the policy, albeit with a commitment to roll it out more slowly. But it's only a few months since McClintock, in his final report on the progress of key reforms, complained that COAG was going backwards and that Australians were losing faith in the capacity of governments to work together. Those of us who've worked on COAG agenda items over the years  have no faith, and little illusion, about the capacity of governments to work together, particularly when they are of different political persuasions. There are only two circumstances in which COAG works effectively -- when the Commonwealth has sufficient cash to bribe the states to comply with reforms, or when the states are led by visionary reformers who can see beyond the next media cycle. There are no such leaders among the current generation of politicians. Former Victorian premier Steve Bracks was the last of them. Nor is there much in the way of spare cash floating around with which to bribe the states. There may be those on the Liberal side who think everything will dramatically improve once there's a Coalition government in Canberra and COAG meetings become a conservative love-in marred only by the presence of pesky but unimportant Labor leaders from South Australia, Tasmania and the ACT -- and the first two are unlikely to be around for very long. If they had a word with Labor people who were around for Kevin Rudd's COAG meetings, they might get a reality check. Removing partisan differences only removes one of the impediments to an increasingly sclerotic process. This is partly because the most significant economic reform challenges no longer lie in the federal government's area of direct responsibility, but in the "human capital" space, around education and health, where the states traditionally have a much greater role than the Commonwealth. COAG, in revolving permanently between a state of partisan hostility and parochial bloodymindedness, only occasionally serves up opportunities to progress such an agenda, and even then the long-term nature of the reforms means they often fall foul of Commonwealth-state differences later on. Fortunately, there's a circuit breaker at hand for this profoundly flawed process, though it comes from an unusual source. In his book Battlelines, Tony Abbott proposed an amendment to the constitution that would allow the Commonwealth to override state laws in any area. It would enable the Commonwealth to simply impose reform on unco-operative states -- or provide the threat of doing so to ensure compliance. It would give the Commonwealth substantially greater leverage in COAG negotiations, freeing it from relying on bribing the states with additional funding or hoping that state leaders see a greater interest than their own parochial focus. We could think seriously about Abbott's proposal. Or we could go through another cycle like the one we've just spent the last six years going through. It might take a little longer, given a number of conservative state governments are only relatively new, but it will pan out the same.

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10 thoughts on “The COAG cycle of frustration goes ever on

  1. Jimmy

    TO describe Ballieu’s funding model as hafl baked is praise indeed. He has announced a model but has not told us how it would be paid for or how it would actually work.

    On top of that it appears to me that it will simply result in more and more govt funds ending up in the private system as the “vouchers” attached to each child would flow to the private school as more and more kids leave the public system (as has been happenning). Why should a child attending a inner city private school get the same govt funding as one attending a disadvantaged or rural school?

    This move is pure politics but hopefully it will back fire showing Gillard as wanting to do something on schools (and Gonski appears popular in the electorate) and being frustrated by the liberals. Although it will probably be portrayed in the media as one of those fault on both sides/ end the blame game type thing where Gillard is told by various commentators to just do the bidding of Big Ted.

  2. Gavin Moodie

    I agree Jimmy.

    I have more confidence than I infer BK has in Gillard’s ability to negotiate a reasonable deal with the States on Gonski. The States were initially very wary about the NDIS, fearing that it would cost them a lot of money and/or effort, but Shorten and Gillard seem to fixed that.

    I am reasonably optimistic that Gillard will be able to prevail over Baillieu’s short term opportunism over Gonski. O’Farrell is on record as supporting Gonski and if the private school opposition can be neutralised it should be possible to get the States to agree with Gonski with, if necessary, some face saving concession for Baillieu.

  3. Andybob

    This must be the wonderful multiculturism our Federal system enables; Mr. Brumby was extolling its virtues just the other week.

    I’d back Abbott’s proposal. The Federal Government can probably already override State laws whenever it likes, using a variety of legalistic techniques, but it will inevitably result in drawn out litigation before the High Court. A simple power to override would hasten that glorious day in Australia when we can bid goodbye to State government.

  4. rossco

    Seriously, what are the prospects of amending the constitution along the way Abbott has proposed. Zero!

    Another Republic referendum would be more likely to get up and that would be damned hard.

  5. Gavin Moodie

    I don’t see how the Australian Government can override the States in school education. If it did have such a power Labor would either be using it as it did with the Fair Work Act or threatening to use it, but no such suggestion as been made by federal Labor.

  6. Andybob

    You won’t find any reference to regulating superannuation funds in s.51 of the Constitution Gavin, but it is regulated by the Commonwealth through tax concessions.

    Some techniques open to the Commonwealth are:

    – relying on the external affairs power to give effect to treaty obligations;

    – requiring schools to be carried on as trading corporations as a condition of tied grants to the States;

    – regulating school trading corporations under the corporations power.

    Its the Golden Rule really. He who’s got the gold makes the rules.

  7. aliso6

    I’m dlad you have worked on Coag agenda items – marvellous – is that what accounts for your relentless negativity? Off to news, Ossie O Rup, with you.

  8. Gavin Moodie

    I suggest that requiring States to operate schools as or thru corporations as a condition of grants would be too far even for a High Court usually stacked with centralists.

  9. Jimmy

    “Mr Abbott has told reporters about “a number of discussions with a number of premiers” on education.

    “They are determined to do the right thing by their schools,” Mr Abbott said in Townsville on Monday.

    “But, like me, they want to see what the specific commitments are that the prime minister is going to make and so far it’s been all talk and no real action.

    “It’s up to the prime minister to stop playing politics, to stop the blame game … to be consultative, to sit down with them and to try to make a difference.”

    So in short, I have instructed the liberal Premiers to make life difficult for the govt of Gonski and I am going to pin all the issues created on the govt.

  10. Hamis Hill

    Similarly, the thirty years of Commonwealth-State Housing Agreements has produced nothing at all because of conservative sabotage of any government “Intervention” into the perfectly “Free”, ha, ha private housing market.
    When, by the way, has there ever been wall wall state and federal governments of the same political hue?
    There is your recipe for perpetual frustration.
    Good, however, if it keeps the ” L’Execrables” out of power in Canberra.
    Sometimes it is sensible to “Keep The Balance”.
    What nice three word slogan.
    Say it, Tony, say it!
    Keep the Balance.
    But Australian voters don’t really need to be told when they have always worked it out for themselves, haven’t they?
    Keep The Balance.
    It’s a political given.
    Happening in September.

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