COAG could hurt the Gillard Government

Gillard may encounter some tough talk from Coalition MPs at today’s COAG meeting. AAP Image/Lukas Coch

The Coalition state premiers going to the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) meeting today smell blood.

The Gillard government is in a weak position with constant leadership speculation, the Craig Thomson affair and poor opinion polls all taking their toll.

Now with four out of six state premiers from the opposition party, the COAG meeting may just add to the government’s problems. Tony Abbott too will be there to exploit any chink in Labor’s armor.

Rivalry and point scoring

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the formation of the COAG. It was originally set up to allow state and federal governments to work together on policy matters.

The prime minister is responsible for calling COAG meetings and thus has great control over their timing and frequency. Paul Keating and John Howard would usually hold a COAG meeting on an annual basis while Kevin Rudd held meetings far more often.

At the conclusion of each COAG meeting a Communiqué is released which outlines the outcome of discussions across a breadth of policy areas.

COAG provides state leaders with an opportunity to try to influence the federal government’s decisions, especially as they try to get policy outcomes for their own state.

Jurisdictions competing with each other over scarce resources has meant that COAG meetings may impact on the broader political debate.

Since its creation in 1992, however, COAG has also been a forum for party-political point scoring. This is especially the case if state leaders feel as though the federal government has somehow given their state a “raw deal”.

Western Australia, for example, has often argued it has not been receiving a fair deal with the GST.

Newman leads the charge

When Kevin Rudd was prime minister in 2007, COAG meetings were not laced with an air of bitterness. After all, Labor held power in every state and territory.

But this year’s COAG is different. Prime Minister Gillard faces four Coalition premiers, including Campbell Newman representing Queensland, for the first time.

As a new and hugely popular premier, Newman has injected an explicitly combative dynamic to this year’s COAG meeting. He has called for a greater share of the mining tax to be paid to Queensland, rejected the idea of “cooperative federalism” and has accused the federal government of having a “media-focused agenda”.

Newman has also joined with his Coalition counterparts in denouncing the impending carbon tax which is a perceived weakness for the Gillard government. He has flagged a possible High Court challenge to the tax, stoking debates about federalism in Australia.

Government troubles

The Gillard government, however, will be keen to navigate around points of conflict by discussing other policy matters.

The government has sought to mobilise support for its National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS). But again, the question of where the money comes from to fund this program will be a hot topic.

For example, Tasmanian Labor premier Lara Giddings, has supported the scheme but declared her state would be in no position to help fund it.

There are also reports of the New South Wales and Victorian Coalition premiers forming an alliance within COAG which may frustrate the federal government even more.

Opposition advantage

While the Gillard government tries to grapple with managing politics of the federation, Tony Abbott will be in the box seat.

Any perceived problems within COAG may be interpreted as a failure of the federal government. Any dispute with a Coalition premier may be interpreted as an act of political zealotry by Gillard.

The federal Coalition will no doubt be eager for its state premiers to highlight perceived policy failures of the federal government and further grind away support for Labor in their respective states.

While some COAG meetings have been bruising affairs for state and federal governments, the potential aggression of some Coalition premiers may cause further harm to Gillard’s prime ministership and government.