Friday, 19 April 2013

The artist formerly known as the Premiers' Conference

They're off to see the PM. The wonderful PM of Oz. Source: JJ Harrison, Creative Commons
Today marks the 35th Council of Australian Governments meeting. The usual conditions for the meeting have been met: Commonwealth issues some sort of Brobdingnagian policy edict with a deadline that has no hope in Hades of being met; the Premiers and Chief Ministers grumble about being poor and arrive one-by-one up Parliament Drive to the Ministerial entrance of Parliament House to make their case to assembled media.

The day ends with a happy photo opportunity and much hand shaking. Leaders stress the amount of common ground and look forward to further discussions. 

The world continues turning.

The worst part of this charade is that COAG has achieved some real reforms over the past twenty years in areas as diverse as road transport, environmental policy and food standards.

Leaders of different eras have effectively been able to carry the best interests of their jurisdictions and their parties to a compromise.

Perhaps COAG says all we need it to say about the current state of the Australian Federation. COAG used to be called the Premiers' Conference. Now it is a centralised secretariat run out of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet in Canberra.

The forum suffers from what has been termed a ‘democratic deficit’ with the COAG process marginalising State parliamentary scrutiny and suffering from opaque decision-making.

People might think of the state-federal "blame game" as being a barrier to becoming a more productive nation, not so. As two pretty clever people, George Williams and Paul Kildea argue:
A well-functioning federal system strikes a balance between cooperation and competition. Cooperation is crucial for addressing the nation’s most difficult policy problems, but competition helps to bring energy and new ideas to the process.
I couldn't have said it better myself.

Addendum 1609 hrs:

Watching the COAG press conference with the Prime Minister, Premiers and Chief Ministers, it becomes apparent just how preordained much of COAG is. State and federal ministers are meeting all the time. Much like international meetings such as the G8 and the G20, the hard work is done in the intervening 12 months by careful diplomacy, negotiation and compromise. So it is with COAG. Prime Minister Gillard knew she would have no hope of getting agreement on her school funding model, but has now started the ball rolling, so to speak. "Gonski" is now in the current affairs vocabulary. That's surely half the battle.

In a time when the masses complain about the "all new lows" of division in Parliament, seeing our partisan leaders discussing ideas together and disagreeing respectfully is a pleasant change, although they shouldn't expect the electorate to notice. Co-operation doesn't sell papers. Or whatever the 21st century equivalent is.

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