The Institutional Impact of COVID: The National Cabinet and COAG

christopher pyne headshopHon Christopher Pyne, Chair, Pyne & Partners

It remains to be seen what the announcement by Prime Minister Scott Morrison, that the Covid 19 Pandemic National Cabinet process and apparatus will replace the Council of Australian Governments structure, will mean in practice.

COAG has been in place since the early days of the Keating Government. It was a good idea at the time and started with the same ambitions as the National Cabinet that will replace it.

COAG was designed to cut through red tape and bureaucracy, bring the heads of government across the Federation together and ensure effective decisions could be made efficiently. It worked for a while. Over time, many different councils of Ministers and public servants were established that ‘hung off’ the COAG process.

The day I became a Minister in the Defence portfolio was the day I never had to attend a COAG Ministers’ Council again. It was a great relief. There is no COAG Defence and Defence Industry Minister’s Council for obvious reasons.

When I was the Minister for Education in the Abbott Government there certainly was a COAG Education Minister’s Council (although it had a much longer name). It seemed that despite everyone’s professed desire to improve the outcomes for students across schools and institutions of higher learning, the whole focus of the council and the bureaucracy that supported it, was on process. Indeed, it became clear to me very quickly that the only thing that united the council was the mutual priority of the states and territories to wrest more money with less accountability from the Australian Government! Every time the Coalition run governments attempted to influence the curriculum, parent engagement, create independent public schools or impact on teacher quality, it was ruthlessly put down like a rebellion of Scottish Highlanders in the eighteenth century!

I will be surprised if the network of committees, councils, advisory boards and quangos that support COAG will simply disappear. Too many people have too much invested in the process to let that occur. My hunch is that, like most creatures in the Canberra Bubble, they will adapt to the new environment and go on, much as they have in the past.

The good intentions of sweeping away red tape and bureaucracy by abolishing parts of the COAG regime and replacing it with the National Cabinet will give way to a more realistic return to the way our Federation has developed and remains – highly successful and the envy of the rest of the world.

However, on the positive side, we have learnt from the Covid 19 pandemic that when Australian governments are faced with an existential threat which a pandemic clearly represents, they can unite and face it down successfully.

We need to use that knowledge to deliver better government.

The social infrastructure that supports the economy and society – hospitals, private and public clinics, airports and ports, the police and emergency services, educational institutions from preschools to universities and the public service proved capable of adapting quickly to changed circumstances.

Public policy makers from politicians to bureaucrats, industry organisations and the union movement were able to negotiate, put the interests of the nation and the overall economy first and create outcomes that protected jobs, industries and sectors with little grandstanding and without delay.

At a granular level, invoices directed to government departments could be settle expeditiously after all – when governments wanted money, the lifeblood of the economy, to flow. Decisions on tenders and other outstanding matters that the private sector were waiting on from governments could be made quickly and communicated to waiting contractors months earlier than they had originally been expected.

The National Cabinet process demonstrated that COAG is not quite broken but it is in need of refreshing. The ability of Premiers, Chief Ministers and the Prime Minister, and their Treasurers, to make decisions and have their senior public servants implement those decisions will be a legacy of the Covid 19 pandemic. In future, when Ministers and others are told something that requires the cooperation of all governements “can’t be done”, the answer should swiftly be – “we could do it when it was a matter of life or death; for better or worse, we proved that nothing ‘can’t be done’”.

All Australians should be proud how we united to best the first wave of Covid 19. If there is a second or even third wave before a vaccine is developed, or if the virus changes again even after a vaccine is available, we will know that the Federation can work when there is a will for it to do so.

In that way alone, the way we are governed in Australia at all levels in the future, will not return to the status quo.