COAG: the theatre and the reality

Campbell Newman, Barry O'Farrell and Julia Gillard enjoy a laugh at last week’s COAG meeting. AAP/Lukas Coch

The rituals before a Council of Australian Governments meeting tend to outweigh the substance and outcomes from the meeting.

By playing the parochial card before the meeting, state premiers sell themselves short in underplaying the real achievements coming out of this forum.

Last week in front of the Federal Parliament, we saw the new Queensland Premier Campbell Newman dismiss co-operative federalism, brandish a pile of paper which represented his opposition to the carbon tax and demand a reallocation of the GST revenue.

Western Australian Premier Colin Barnett repeated his concerns about the GST carve up and the way the Commonwealth overrode the rights of the states. None of these issues were actually on the organisation - known universally as COAG - agenda.

Victorian Premier Ted Baillieu was more targeted with his concerns about the implications for Victoria of the national workplace health and safety legislation – an item which was on the COAG agenda.

This theatre is a leftover from a previous era of intergovernmental relations when the premiers came to Canberra for the annual Loans Council meeting. State budgets were then directly tied to the amount of Commonwealth funding the state premiers could extract from the Treasury coffers.

Their standing at home was tied to their perceived skill in getting a good deal for their jurisdiction. Before the communications revolution, the trip to Canberra was also a real opportunity to bring issues of concern to the nation’s capital.

The disconnect has never been greater between what goes on before COAG and the outcomes of the meeting. The pre-COAG coverage indicates it will be a meeting full of partisan and territorial conflict played out with passion and conviction. The reality is COAG is an exercise in managerial decision making and national agenda setting.

Despite the grandstanding, today’s premier tends to be pragmatic and transactional with a focus on problem solving. Australian political leaders, between the federal and sub-national levels, are used to working together to put aside the conflicts of partisan, personality and jurisdictional differences to make decisions in the national interest. They have been doing so since the early 1990s.

Chief headkickers for their respective sides of politics, Jeff Kennett and Paul Keating even managed to work together to implement reforms to competition policy.

The COAG agenda reflects this workman-like approach to the federation. New priorities are agreed upon. At Friday’s meeting it was the National Partnership on Skills Reform and an agreement on principles for the establishment of a National Disability Insurance Scheme.

This work has now gone to Select Council to work out details on the scope and funding of the scheme and will return to the next COAG meeting for further consideration.

Premiers also signed a new National Partnership Agreement for National Mental Health Reform which established a number of projects to help people with long-term mental illness.

As well, the First Ministers reviewed progress on the Seamless National Economy and reviewed a number of National Partnership Agreements due to expire.

At the post-COAG press conference no-one was disgruntled. There were no dramatic walkouts. All the first ministers signed up to the new agreements. The prime minister looked relaxed and comfortable. The conflict set up in act one fizzled out in act three.

In reality, the members of COAG are more professional and focused on outcomes than we give them credit for. Despite the media’s hope that the meeting would pit Liberal states against a Labor Prime Minister, progress was made on a number of issues of importance to the nation.

There will always be conflict in intergovernmental relations. The state premiers concerns about the Commonwealth’s control of the agenda and management of the meeting are legitimate.

But while the Commonwealth holds the purse and the drive for international competitiveness remains a critical imperative for state and federal leaders, the focus on negotiated outcomes will dominate over partisan and territorial conflicts.