The Council of Australian Governments (COAG), which includes the prime minister, all state premiers and chief ministers of the territories, and the president of the Australian Local Government Association, has just recently met in April.
COAG began in 1992 under the Keating Labor Government to inject more rational decision making into a range of issues that increasingly involved federal-state (and local) government negotiations. Since 1999, COAG replaced the Premiers’ Conference that focused mostly on financial issues rather than broader policy matters.
The evolvement of COAG and its role in brokering national policy responses, largely driven by the Commonwealth government, is a sign of the times. A sign of the increasing expectations, rightly or wrongly, of more uniform policies across wider and wider areas of policy - including those that, both constitutionally and historically, were once the sole responsibilities of the states.
Let there be no misunderstanding - Australia is moving to a single policy zone with state policy differences being submerged in the name of “reform”, national interest and uniformity.
Extraordinarily, after initial disinterest, the Howard Government, by far Australia’s most centralist government, has been very adept at using the COAG process to drive its aggressive centralist policies across a host of areas. Time and time again the premiers talk tough on the way to COAG meetings about their resistance to the feds. Repeatedly the premiers all line up at the post-COAG press conference, with the prime minister, and sing his praises.
COAG meetings, like any quasi-administrative political structure, need to be viewed on two levels. There is the theatre of the meetings, where much posturing is done, and talk of principles, and resistance to federal government domination. This is good consumption for the voters back in the states, and for news-bites on evening television, but belie the co-operative nature of COAG and what really goes on among consenting state, territory and local government politicians behind closed doors.
And so it was at the April COAG. There much talk by the states about their agendas, especially concerning climate change. What made this most recent COAG a little different was the impending federal election, and that all attendees other than the Commonwealth and local government, were ALP.
The state agenda this time was more politically pointed. There was the implicit background that only the present leader of the federal opposition, Mr Rudd, could possibly work with the states and territories.
However, at the end of the day the COAG policy agenda took over from the political agenda. There was reform on regulation across rail safety, property securities, occupational health, environmental assessment processes, and other areas. Important policy initiatives were agreed upon in early childhood and child care, diabetes treatment, vocational education, literacy and numeracy education and national accreditation of medical staff.
There were a host of other discussions and agreements covering, climate change (more Commonwealth funding), infrastructure, skills development, Indigenous issues, the Lockhart review, and counter terrorism.
The Prime Minster believed that in addition to the agreement to establish the processes to oversee the implementation of the National Reform Agenda for further economic reforms that “one of the really big reforms we agreed today was in the energy market”. This involved establishing a national Energy Market Operator for electricity and gas which has long been sought and now has finally been agreed.
Indeed, despite the pre-COAG political chants by the premiers about climate change, their demand for $7 billion to run the National Reform Agenda and the other problems they had with the Howard Government, the premiers at the end of the day were amazingly in agreement with the Prime Minister’s view, “that we did have a very successful COAG meeting”.