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.

Peter Fray

Fetch your first 12 weeks for $12

Here at Crikey, we saw a mighty surge in subscribers throughout 2020. Your support has been nothing short of amazing — we couldn’t have got through this year like no other without you, our readers.

If you haven’t joined us yet, fetch your first 12 weeks for $12 and start 2021 with the journalism you need to navigate whatever lies ahead.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW