11/04/2012 - 10:06

Federalism drowns in bureaucracy

11/04/2012 - 10:06

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Improving the effectiveness of Australia’s federation is a widely shared goal but there has been little progress, unless you count an ever-expanding bureaucracy.

Improving the effectiveness of Australia’s federation is a widely shared goal but there has been little progress, unless you count an ever-expanding bureaucracy.

Hands up if you’ve heard of the COAG National Partnership Agreement to Deliver a Seamless National Economy.

Keep your hands up if you know what it means.

What about the COAG Reform Council? Or the Council for the Australian Federation? Or even COAG itself?

How many readers know that Genia McCaffery is a member of COAG? In fact, how many readers know who Genia McCaffery is?

A plethora of committees, partnerships and agreements seems to be the major outcome from years spent trying to reform Australia’s federation.

The whole charade will be on show again this Friday, when the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) holds its next meeting.

Prime minister Julia Gillard will chair the meeting but instead of being surrounded by (relatively) friendly Labor premiers, she will be outnumbered by Liberal premiers and chief ministers.

With Victoria, NSW and Queensland all having a change of government in the past 16 months, Western Australian premier Colin Barnett and Northern Territory chief minister Paul Henderson will no longer be the only leaders from the conservative side of politics.

Just to reinforce the changing balance, Australia’s four most populous and economically important states all have conservative leaders.

It’s not just state and territory leaders who join the PM at COAG meetings.

The president of the Australian Local Government Association – the aforementioned Genia McCaffery, who is better known to the residents of North Sydney as their long-serving mayor – also gets a gig.

But what can all of these political leaders look forward to?

For a start, there will be meetings to plan for meetings.

On Thursday, the state and territory leaders will meet under the banner of the Council for the Australian Federation.

CAF is currently chaired by one of the remaining Labor leaders, SA premier Jay Weatherill. 

Hence, it will be interesting to see if CAF can live up to its stated goal, of enabling the states and territories to work towards a common understanding of their positions on key policy issues.

Another forum that has been established to plan for COAG is the COAG Reform Council.

Headed by former prime ministerial adviser Paul McClintock, the COAG Reform Council issued a very earnest statement last week calling on COAG to respond to “important issues” in education, skills, the seamless national economy (whatever that is) and the COAG reform agenda (whatever that is).

Sitting on the outside, this all seems terribly indulgent, bureaucratic and inefficient.

The COAG structure was put in place to try and improve upon the old Premiers Conferences, which often resulted in a belligerent shouting match across the meeting room in Canberra.

Not terribly efficient either, but nobody pretended it was anything more than politicians having an old fashioned barney.

Former prime minister Kevin Rudd tried to dress up the whole process by claiming he would institute evidence-based policy making. What a crock.

As if CAF and the COAG Reform Council wer not enough, this year’s COAG will also have the benefit of the COAG Busness Advisory Forum, which will have its inaugural meeting on Thursday.

The forum, apparently, forms part of the Australian government’s broader deregulation agenda – tell that to businesses trying to navigate Labor’s industrial relations policies.

It also, apparently, builds on the COAG National Partnership Agreement to Deliver a Seamless National Economy.

That agreement, apparently, is designed to cut costs, reduce regulation, improve workforce participation, enhance labour mobility, expand Australia’s productive capacity and enable stronger economic growth. Sounds like nirvana.

In the meantime, what’s happening in the real world?

WA treasurer Christian Porter joined his peers from around the country for a meeting in Canberra last week with Wayne Swan.

This meeting was also designed to prepare for COAG but, to the dismay of Mr Porter and other state treasurers, it lasted only two hours. That’s a fraction of the time Mr Porter would have spent sitting in airplanes, airports and taxis just to attend the meeting.

The state treasurers were also disappointed that no serious debate was undertaken.

Nor were they allowed to see the document they really wanted to get their hands on – the draft review of the Grants Commission, which analyses the break-up of GST grants.

Mr Swan decided the states would not be allowed to see the review until it was finalised in September.

And they call it cooperative federalism.

 

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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