You wouldn’t know yesterday’s meeting in Melbourne of the nation’s top elected officials was the Council of Australian Governments, ‘the peak intergovernmental forum in Australia’. Such has been the breathless reporting of Federal and State Labor’s ‘love in’, you might have mistaken it for the ALP national conference. Actually, ALP conferences are never this friendly.
In one sense the reporting matched the spin emanating from Prime Minster Kevin Rudd, Victorian Premier John Brumby and the other assembled princes of the realm: yesterday’s meeting truly does show Labor in Power. It’s another illustration, if any more were needed, of the magnitude of the Liberal Party’s eclispe. During the election campaign, John Howard repeated the warning ‘wall to wall Labor governments’ like a magical mantra that might ward off his defeat. Now here it is, before our very eyes.
But wall-to-wall government by any party in a political system like Australia’s poses risks as well as opportunities. The tasks that confront Australian governments are no less onerous simply because the party in power has changed. And too much power can be a heady brew, as the Liberals themselves discovered after wining the Senate in 2004.
So it ‘s not surprising that Kevin Rudd and his State Labor colleagues were putting the best possible PR on what was essentially a fairly workmanlike affair. The word ‘work’ was constantly on the Prime Minister’s lips.
And work in governments inevitably leads to committees – or ‘working groups’ as they are apparently now known. Kevin Rudd has set up seven. They are: health and ageing; education and training; climate change and water; infrastructure; red tape; housing and Indigenous reform.
The real action of the meeting was the make-up of these working groups, and here Rudd has shown just how adroitly he understands the machine of government. Each working group will be chaired by a Federal Cabinet Minister – with each State getting the consolation prize of being Deputy on one of the committees.
Those who thought Julia Gillard already had enough on her plate will be astonished to discover she has been given yet another hat: Chair of the COAG Working Group on the Productivity Agenda, with responsibility for coordinating State and Federal policy on education and training from creche to university. Penny Wong is looking after the small matters of water and climate change, and a range of senior cabinet ministers chair the rest.
Rudd’s working group structure is a shrewd decision. It locks the States into a process that Rudd controls, shoe-horning them into helping him implement his election promises. It also keeps his potential enemies close – and State Premiers are some of the most dangerous adversaries for any Prime Minister.
In return, Rudd has agreed to renegotiate some of the Commonwealth’s ‘special purpose’ payments, which tie Federal funding to silly gestures like flagpoles in schools. But he chose to ignore the many obvious policy differences that some States still have with the Commonwealth – like NSW’s desperate desire to get its hands on more GST revenue, or Victoria’s continuing refusal to sign up to the national water plan.
That’s not to say that there is no substance in yesterday’s communique. Premiers like Morris Iemma and John Brumby are right to point out that the scope and detail of the various ‘Implementation Plans’ and ‘Indicative Forward Work Programs’ is unprecedented in recent COAGs. In areas like red tape reduction, Labor has the chance to make some windfall gains for national productivity.
There’s a lot to be hopeful about when both the States and Commonwealth of Australia are finally talking seriously about reform in ‘Occupational Health & Safety, payroll tax administration, building codes, trade and professional recognition, simplified accounting methods for the hospitality sector and BAS simplification.’
The COAG meeting put some welcome focus on health policy. However, few will find much to be thrilled by in the headline announcements of $100 million in extra surgical funding and $50 million for Indigenous drug and alcohol programs. As Carol Nader observes today in The Age, the $100 million is merely the first tranche of one of Rudd’s election policies. This is chump-change in our multi-billion dollar public hospital system – according to the ABC’s Brendan Trembath, the AMA wants another $3 billion annually.
In lieu of serious funding, Labor is setting up another committee. It’s called the National Health and Hospitals Reform Commission. The Commission will have wide terms of reference and promises to consult exhaustively. Let’s hope it has the vision to look beyond our public hospital system to the opportunities afforded in preventative healthcare, better IT systems, primary and acute care and rehabilitation. After all, Australia’s biggest health challenges can’t be solved by better hospitals – they’re chronic and preventable diseases like diabetes, obesity and depression.
Another fascinating aspect of the COAG agenda is its laundry list of targets and promises. Labor would surely remember the folly of Bob Hawke’s pledge to end childhood poverty by 1990, but some of the promises here are just as ambitious. In various parts of the communique, the Labor leaders have committed themselves to adding 450,000 training places in four years, increasing Year 12 retention rates to 90 per cent by 2020, and closing the life expectancy gap for Indigenous Australians in ‘a generation’. On the one hand, we can applaud our governments for setting targets we can hold them to. Another view is that the new scorecards will encourage cheating.
For this meeting at least, Australia’s Labor governments are one big happy family. It can’t last. State Premiers and Prime Ministers are natural adversaries, for some fundamental reasons that can be as complex as water policy or as simple as envy and spite. It’s inevitable in a system like Australia’s, which has the highest level of what the economists call vertical fiscal imbalance in the world.
If Kevin Rudd and his eight Premiers and Chief Ministers can get some work done, we may finally see some real Federal-State reform. Even so, there seems little doubt that the ‘blame game and buck passing’ will eventually return.
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