The Council of Australian Governments (COAG) is the supreme political decision making body in Australia. To use a private sector analogy its acts as our country’s national board of directors and is charged with making the big policy calls and, whilst being mindful of local loyalties, ensuring that the federation continues to work in the interests of all Australians.
Today’s COAG meeting is an opportunity for Australia’s political leaders to gather, discuss and work together to progress issues of national significance. Health and education policy and funding should be front and centre of these talks as the impacts of the Abbott/Turnbull Governments’ decision to rip-up health and education agreements and cut $80 billion from State and Territory budgets remains unresolved.
Instead the meeting looks like being hijacked by the Commonwealth under the guise of federation reform or to use the Prime Minister’s own words "the most fundamental reform to the federation in generations" in a desperate attempt to distract discussion away from their own budgets’ cuts and shift the blame back to the States and Territories. It’s a tried and tested way of getting through a difficult meeting but achieving very little in the long run.
State and Territory leaders know that when this Commonwealth Government starts talking federation reform that the news ahead isn’t good. You only need to look back two years to remember that when reform of the federation was discussed at the April 2014 COAG the result was $80 billion worth of cuts to health and education funding in the disastrous Federal Budget that was handed down just two weeks later.
Over the past two years federation reform has taken twists and turns along the reform highway. Promises of a Federation White Paper to be released at the end of 2015 and a Tax White Paper to be released in the second half of 2015 – neither were delivered. Two years of work and thousands of hours from bureaucrats and stakeholders went into those failed processes and then nothing. No White Papers and no reform agenda.
Then three days out from this week’s COAG meeting all of a sudden the Turnbull Government starts talking federation reform again and begins dropping out a series of seemingly ill-thought through and poorly communicated ideas to the media. The Prime Minister tells us he wants to give share income tax powers with the States and Territories to help them fund their services. There is no mention of course of the $80 billion of cuts which led to the funding pressures in the first place.
According to the Prime Minister his double taxing income tax sharing idea is "the most fundamental reform to the federation in generations" but there is no paper or any detail provided to explain the governments thinking - not even a media release to hold the government to. It also becomes clear that the Prime Minister only decided to bring First Ministers and key stakeholders into his confidence regarding any tax change discussion, in individual phone calls after the story had been dropped to the media.
With this as the backdrop to COAG it’s hard to believe that the income tax idea is anything but a ruse to distract the debate from the health and education cuts which remains the most urgent, unresolved and challenging issue facing COAG members in 2016.
How can the Commonwealth seriously expect State and Territory leaders to sign–up to “the most fundamental reform to the federation in generations" simply after a phone-call from the Prime Minister and a follow-up discussion today in Canberra.
Whilst it’s hard to raise excitement amongst the community for interest in a COAG meeting – it is without doubt the most powerful meeting of political leaders held in our country. What gets agreed at COAG can change the nation. Ambushing State and Territory leaders three days out from a meeting is no way for a responsible government to address issues of national importance for the Australian community.
Malcolm Turnbull’s handling of the lead up to COAG was hardly the way for serious reform of the federation to be pursued but maybe that’s been the idea all along.
Katy Gallagher is the Shadow Minister Assisting the Leader on State and Territory Relations and is a Senator for the Australian Capital Territory.