Unaccountable national cabinet not a natural model for economic recovery

Nov 3, 2020

As premiers and chief ministers have worked to contain their pandemics, in the national cabinet as much as with their own administrations there have been no noticeable alliances of the Labor leaders against the conservatives, or the other way around.

Credit – Unsplash

Each leader has been focused on local conditions, and local responses, and has not cared much about what interstate party colleagues, or enemies, have thought. It is all of a one with Commonwealth-State meetings over a century, at which early unity, whether by premiers as a group, or premiers arrayed in party colours has been quickly broken up by differential promises of money for those who crossed the picket lines. Only this time, at least by the end, none of the states had been seduced by the Commonwealth — each, and the Commonwealth, was going in a different direction. So far as there is a national response — and there is — it has been through bilateral arrangements, rather than by general consensus, or by majority votes at the National Cabinet meeting.

Scott Morrison’s original concept of the National Cabinet came a complete cropper, but something workable seems to have survived. For now at least. At first Morrison and the Commonwealth hoped to dominate and control the premiers and chief ministers both by force of personality, a pretence of showing the cards they were playing and an offer of access to Commonwealth resources — now for all intents and purposes unlimited given the way the federal government abandoned all of its debt and deficit ideology and rhetoric and became prepared to borrow by the hundreds of millions. Play along, and they could share power, not least because the Commonwealth seemed anxious to outsource its new spending programs either to the states or to the private sector. Morrison, moreover, seemed initially at least to be evidence-driven so far as pandemic measures were concerned , willing to discuss and debate, and genuinely keen on finding consensus national solutions. The application of ideology, and determination to maintain the cultural wars, has emerged  over economic recovery plans.

Increasingly, however, he found it difficult as premiers, with their own experts, and their own conditions, refused to adopt many of his proposals, whether over school closures, border blockades, or the extent of business closures in the cities. Moreover it soon became clear that health experts were divided over some of the possible responses — over school closures, for example — and that, at least for some of the health advisers, advice was far from frank and independent, but was tailored according to what particular political masters wanted to hear.

Naturally, almost all of the political players insisted that they were solely guided by medical advice. But each added or subtracted to it according to personal or political considerations. Morrison gave us a weekend to watch football. Andrews invented a curfew. Berejiklian injected the full force of rage into her Victorian border blockade. Palaszczuk gratuitously threw the ACT into its NSW border blockade, arguing that otherwise Sydney-siders might smuggle themselves in through Canberra.

Morrison has options with how the National Cabinet idea — with or without the assistance of hand-chosen mates, cronies and urgers from the business community — might be further developed. But there are limits. With the business element, it is starting to resemble Mussolini’s Grand Council of Fascists — something Liberals suggested of Bob Hawke’s tendency to rule through cabals of trusted businessmen and unionists.

It seems certain that the COAG model had run its course, if rather more from Commonwealth neglect since the advent of the Abbott government than from intrinsic weakness. But the national cabinet model has major problems of transparency and accountability, and of governance.

If it were to become the instrument of federation at work, it would almost certainly lead to demands that it be covered by the Commonwealth administrative law regime,  wide powers for a much-expanded auditor-general, and coverage (including of premiers) inside a transparent corruption and integrity regime. It cannot assume its shape and structure simply because Morrison is resistant to questions, resistant to external scrutiny, and to process, and to concepts of public interest.

Australia cannot afford the sort of accountability black hole that always seems to happen whenever the Commonwealth grants money to the states — out of the jurisdiction of the federal auditor, and rarely the subject of close scrutiny by his state counterparts. Nor can it be a government of spending money by discretion, whether for pet projects, pet lobbyists or so as to spite enemies. We have had enough of that, from government federal and state, over the past few years.

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