(Image: AAP/Lukas Coch)

Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced on Friday afternoon the national cabinet, formed in mid-March in response to COVID-19 and made up of state and territory leaders, is here to stay. 

It’s only the second time a national cabinet has been established — the first being in World War Two — and is going to replace the Council of Australian Governments (COAG). 

But what’s the difference between the two? Crikey has previously examined the lack of transparency of the national cabinet — now, we have a few more details. 

Secrecy

The main difference between the two bodies is transparency.

COAG decisions are expected to be made public within a week; national cabinet decisions are released whenever Morrison decides they should be. 

The COAG handbook states there is an “expectation that a document will be made public”, with an assumption that papers received by the secretariat have been cleared for circulation. 

COAG documents can also be accessed through Freedom of Information (FOI) requests.

Compare that with the cabinet rules.

The Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C) has confirmed to Crikey the national cabinet abides by the cabinet handbook, which states:

Obviously general information about what has been decided by the cabinet is, on occasions, released into the public domain by persons authorised to do so.

But this does not detract from the importance of allowing the prime minister or the cabinet itself to decide what is disclosed publicly about any decision they have reached.

The cabinet’s deliberations about rules and processes affecting everyday Australians are “just not a spectator sport”, Morrison said on Friday. 

The FOI Act specifically exempts cabinet documents from disclosure. Cabinet notebooks are protected from early public release — meaning they cannot be accessed under FOI — and remain secret for 30 years

Importantly, conflicts of interest declared in cabinet committee meetings are recorded by the cabinet notetakers, making them secret too.

Solidarity 

While COAG decisions are supposed to be made by reaching a consensus (or, barring that, a majority vote), there’s nothing in the handbook banning members from criticising the council’s decisions.

Try that in the cabinet, and you get kicked out. As per the handbook:

Members of the cabinet must publicly support all government decisions made in the cabinet, even if they do not agree with them.

If cabinet members want to dissociate themselves from the cabinet’s decisions, they have to resign from the cabinet. This is a grey area when it comes to the national cabinet — given state and territory leaders are there representing their sovereign jurisdictions, it’s not clear how this would be enforced. 

When asked to elaborate, the PM&C told Crikey: “Any details of the inner workings of the national cabinet remains cabinet-in-confidence.” 

COAG, in comparison, simply states it needs to made clear whether public commentary is representing the view of the council or of individual council members. 

Agenda

The national cabinet will also be driven initially to just a single agenda — to create jobs (with a “laser-like mission focus”, as Morrison called it). 

In the same speech, however, he praised the cabinet on achieving balance between the health and economic management of the crisis. It’s not clear how that balance will be managed in the future.

COAG is made up of several councils, from transport and infrastructure to women’s safety, to the energy council.

The national cabinet seeks to abolish — ahem, reform and consolidate — several of these councils, including the disability reform council. 

“Ministers will consider the value of each of those and I suspect we’ll see many of them no longer be required,” Morrison said. 

How often it meets

COAG met two to four times a year. Currently, the national cabinet meets every two weeks (down from once a week at the height of the coronavirus).

Once the pandemic passes, it will meet once a month via teleconference, and twice a year in person.

Morrison has said being able to meet more frequently and virtually enabled flexibility and cut back on formalities. 

Exactly how the national cabinet will operate in a post-pandemic Australia, and whether a new handbook detailing how it will operate will be written, is yet to be seen. 

What do you think about the decision to replace COAG with the national cabinet? Let us know your thoughts by writing to [email protected]. Please include your full name to be considered for publication in Crikey’s Your Say column.