Thursday, 2 September 2021
COAG Legislation Amendment Bill 2021; Second Reading
That this bill be now read a second time.
The COAG Legislation Amendment Bill 2021 amends legislation to deal with the cessation of the Council of Australian Governments and the establishment of the National Cabinet and the National Federation Reform Council.
This bill ushers in a new and exciting era for our federation.
Twenty twenty tested the nation, and presented great challenges for the Commonwealth and the states and territories. However, as the Prime Minister stated, our 'federal instincts' kicked in in the face of the COVID-19 global pandemic, and we knew we had to come together.
Australians have all witnessed—and benefited from—our federation and our policymaking institutions adapting to bring about unprecedented cooperation.
On 13 March 2020, the Prime Minister, the premiers of each state, and the chief ministers of the Australian Capital Territory and Northern Territory agreed to establish the National Cabinet to coordinate and deliver a response to COVID-19 in Australia.
The National Cabinet began from a realisation that if the Commonwealth, states and territories each tried to go their own way, Australia would fall short in its response to the pandemic.
It is working as a true federated decision-making body leading the national response to the pandemic. Many crucial decisions have been collectively made through the National Cabinet to both control the spread of COVID-19 and keep essential services operational. This has included decisions on social gathering restrictions; the introduction of 14-day quarantine for returning international passengers; the establishment of protocols to move freight, seasonal workers and emergency services across state borders, as well as bringing in seasonal workers to support the agricultural sector; and the adoption of emergency commercial tenancy arrangements for small and medium sized businesses to avoid evictions and unsustainable debts.
As Australia transitions its COVID-19 response, the Prime Minister, premiers and chief ministers are focussed on the successful delivery of the national rollout of COVID-19 vaccines and on the economy.
National Cabinet is increasingly driving a job-making agenda, focused on six priority areas of reform—rural and regional, skills, energy, infrastructure and transport, population and migration, and health.
In contrast to the National Cabinet's agility and decisiveness, COAG and its related bodies were burdened by red tape and bureaucracy which made them inefficient in taking decisions and slow to advance reform.
COAG operated on a consensus based decision-making model—an unrealistic and impractical feature, given the diverse and disparate needs of each state and territory. As the Prime Minister summarised, such a model 'sets the Federation up to fail'.
In the Prime Minister's words:
By any measure, the National Cabinet has proven to be a much more effective body for taking decisions in the national interest than the COAG structure.
The Prime Minister is not alone in his view on the effectiveness of the National Cabinet.
… National Cabinet has demonstrated our ability to get things done more quickly. And what COVID has taught all of us, the state jurisdictions and I think also as a national government, is that you can do things better and differently and let's use this opportunity to keep improving the quality of life of our citizens and streamlining our processes.
The Premier of Victoria, Daniel Andrews, has said:
For five years before 2020, COAG for me was a forum where nothing got done. Lots of important discussions, very little action. National Cabinet is different. It's been right for its time and, in my view, it has a bright future.
The Premier of Queensland, Annastacia Palaszczuk, has said:
… I think we shouldn't gloss over the fact too that this National Cabinet has worked in the best interest of all Australians ... We have been provided at all times with expert advice on health and at all times expert advice on the economy. So that has been absolutely critical to the way the National Cabinet has worked and how I think it's going to work into the future.
The announcement of the cessation of COAG on the 29 May 2020 was accompanied by the formation of the National Federation Reform Council. This council comprises first ministers and treasurers from all jurisdictions and the presidents of the Australian Local Government Association. The National Federation Reform Council has changed the way the Commonwealth and states and territories come together to progress priority national federation issues. Once a year, the National Federation Reform Council meets to consider issues that fall outside the National Cabinet's job creation remit, such as women's safety, Indigenous affairs, and veterans' wellbeing.
The role of the Council on Federal Financial Relations was also enhanced with treasurers taking responsibility for all funding agreements.
To consolidate and reset the existing structures under COAG, the National Cabinet agreed on the 26 June 2020 that the former Commonwealth cabinet secretary, and former Director General of the Western Australian Department of Premier and Cabinet, Mr Peter Conran AM, would lead a review of COAG Councils and Ministerial Forums (the review).
The review rationalised and reset these bodies, and provided recommendations to make their operations more effective with focused work programs and a streamlined structure.
Mr Conran's review sought not just to rationalise the number of ministers' meetings—as has been the focus of many past reviews—but more importantly to overhaul the way they function.
Mr Conran recommended to the National Cabinet that:
Our system must be able to adapt and evolve and it must empower ministers to set clear objectives and get on with the job of delivering them.
The new system of federal relations that the review recommended was modelled on the efficient way that the National Cabinet deals with issues—that is, quickly, on the advice of experts, and with ministers dictating priorities and parameters.
All first ministers, through the National Cabinet, unanimously accepted the review's recommendations on the 23 October 2020. This included reducing the number of ministerial forums, and ensuring those that remain are agile and responsive to emerging national priorities. Ministers are empowered to take direct responsibility for decision-making in their portfolios, and will not report to the National Cabinet or the National Federation Reform Council unless directly tasked.
Recognising the cessation of the former COAG model, the review also recommended that the Commonwealth should introduce legislation to the parliament to amend outdated references to COAG councils and ministerial forums.
And that is what this bill seeks to do: its purpose is to amend our legislation to reflect the new streamlined architecture that governs our federation today.
The amendments made in schedules 1 and 2 will recognise and give effect to the cessation of COAG, in line with the Review of COAG Councils and Ministerial Forums.
Schedule 1 to the bill would primarily replace references to the COAG Reform Fund with references to the Federation Reform Fund throughout Commonwealth legislation where that term exists. This means that the COAG Reform Fund Act 2008 would have a new short title of the Federation Reform Fund Act 2008. The Federation Reform Fund will continue to be the mechanism through which the Commonwealth makes grants of financial assistance to the states and territories.
Schedule 2 to the bill would amend other references to intergovernmental bodies in Commonwealth legislation. The term COAG will now be replaced by the term First Ministers' Council, defined as a body consisting only of, or including, the Prime Minister, premiers and chief ministers.
The term Ministerial Council will remain, however it will be defined flexibly, as a body consisting of the minister of the Commonwealth and each state and territory who is responsible for the relevant matter, such as health or education.
The amendments in schedule 3 of the bill deal with confidential information of the National Cabinet and its committees. The National Cabinet is established as a committee of the Commonwealth cabinet.
Like the Commonwealth cabinet and its committees, all proceedings and documentation of the National Cabinet and its committees are confidential.
And like the Commonwealth cabinet and its committees, the maintenance of confidentiality is essential to enable full and frank discussion between the representatives of all jurisdictions.
The purpose of the amendments in schedule 3 is to confirm that where Commonwealth legislation has existing provisions to protect from disclosure the deliberations and decisions of the cabinet and its committees, the same protections apply to the deliberations and decisions of the National Cabinet and its committees.
The changes to our intergovernmental decision-making framework, supported by this bill, herald significant and timely change for our federation.
I commend this bill to the House.