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With the COVID crisis easing, is the National Cabinet still fit for purpose?


Australian political leaders are good crisis managers. The establishment of the National Cabinet in March 2020, which brought together the Prime Minister, State Premiers and Prime Ministers of the Territory to coordinate the national response to the COVID pandemic, tapped into this strength.

Compared to other intergovernmental forums, the National Cabinet was designed to be agile, decisive and unburdened by bureaucracy.

However, three years later, and with the urgency of easing the pandemic, it’s time to rethink the National Cabinet. With the leaders collect today in Canberra, a central question that arises during the meeting is whether the group is still fit for purpose.

Late last year, Griffith University’s Policy Innovation Hub hosted a workshop that brought together experts, politicians and other stakeholders to assess the National Cabinet’s performance and identify ways to improve it in the future. We have reached three main points of agreement.

1. An informal approach is no longer tenable

While the current model for the National Cabinet worked well at the height of the pandemic, the same approach is not ideal today.

Since the abolition of the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) in 2020, National Cabinet has served as the main forum for Australia’s leaders to meet and discuss key issues facing the country.

But the National Cabinet’s emphasis on informality became so appreciated by political leaders during the pandemic, is not a solid foundation for tackling the country’s complex challenges.

While it is often a good thing to avoid the mire of bureaucracy, we also need to develop a set of principles or touchstones to guide and monitor the success of the National Cabinet. We also need more selectivity and substantiation of the projects the government focuses on, and a reasonable balance between stability, flexibility and priorities.

A meeting of the national cabinet at the beginning of the pandemic.
Alex Ellinghausen/AAP

2. The veil of secrecy must be lifted

The National Cabinet is still shrouded in secrecy. From the outset, then-Prime Minister Scott Morrison claimed it was protected by cabinet secrecypreventing public disclosure of discussions and documents considered by the body.

This argument was rejected by the Administrative Appeal Tribunal in 2021. Federal Court Judge Richard White ruled that simply calling the institution a “cabinet” did not automatically confer confidentiality.

Read more: Gov. Morrison loses fight for national cabinet secrecy

But even after that decision, both the Morrison and Albanian governments have done so refused Requests for Freedom of Information for National Cabinet documents.

As a federation, Australia already struggles with accountability as it can be easy for governments to blame each other. For example, the federal and Victorian governments arguing over who was to blame for COVID outbreaks in aged care centers in 2020.

Adding a policy of blanket secrecy over the national cabinet further limits our ability to hold governments accountable and undermines public trust.

Of course there is some value in preserving the privacy of discussions in the national cabinet. In a regular cabinet, for example, it allows members to rigorously debate and consider all options before arriving at a unified position.

So it comes down to striking a balance between encouraging frank discussion among our leaders and promoting transparency. A good starting point would be to go back to the partial freedom of information exemption that operated under COAG. This allowed documents to be released under a freedom of information request — with the consent of all jurisdictions — while preserving the confidentiality of the details of the leaders’ discussions.

Read more: Nowhere to Hide: The Meaning of a National Cabinet That Isn’t a Cabinet

3. The national cabinet must have a true federal state balance sheet

Australia is at its best when it operates as a true federation, giving state governments room to innovate, learn from each other and collaborate.

The response to the pandemic is a good example: as infection patterns varied across the country, each state was able to respond to local conditions as needed. If the National Cabinet is to succeed in the future, the participants must commit themselves to the objectives of federalism.

Any reform of the national cabinet must ensure that it becomes a truly federal body. An intergovernmental agreement could formalize the governing arrangements of the National Cabinet and clarify its role and function. It could also add innovations such as a common Commonwealth Secretariat of State.

Just like COAG before, the National Cabinet is currently a top-heavy body.

The issues that the Commonwealth government deems important are usually prioritized and the states have limited opportunities to raise issues they deem important. In addition, the Commonwealth has a preference for uniform policies rather than allowing variation to meet local needs. The Commonwealth also has a larger revenue base, giving it a stronger bargaining power compared to the states.

These issues remain a challenge to promote more equality in the National Cabinet and optimally optimize our federation.

Read more: Will the national cabinet change the dynamics of the federal state?

Where to from here?

The National Cabinet played a vital role in guiding Australia through the worst of the pandemic. But the transition from COAG to the National Cabinet was so rapid that there was no chance of developing a truly workable, sustainable model. We need a body fit to meet the substantial challenges facing the nation in the future.

Australians are highly skeptical of bureaucratic chatterboxes, but there is also frustration over the government’s perceived inability to implement long-term reforms. The National Cabinet has the opportunity to learn from COAG’s shortcomings and create a sustainable model of federal cooperation and performance.

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