Australia’s new era of co-operative federalism marked by cautious optimism

Roundtable participants in Sydney included (left to right) John Phillimore, David Kemp, Linda Botterill and Graham Sansom.

When state and federal cabinet ministers meet in Australia, important issues are often decided upon, participants learned at a recent Global Dialogue in Sydney.

The roundtable was part of the current round of the Forum’s Global Dialogue on Federalism, which brought together senior public servants, policy advisers and academics.

Indeed, several roundtable participants concurred that agreements among federal and state officials are most often reached when relations between the states and the federal government are congenial.

Discussion at the Sydney gathering focused on conflict between federal partners, the influence of party political alignment on intergovernmental relations, the relative autonomy of state premiers, the outcomes of intergovernmental meetings when attended by the prime minister and cabinet ministers, the importance of social networks, the accountability of decision-makers to stakeholders and the effectiveness of the current mechanisms of intergovernmental relations.

Participants agree that both formal and informal intergovernmental relations were seen as integral to the effective functioning of the Australian federation, however, the roundtable attendees were divided over whether these mechanisms could address the increasing centralisation of policymaking authority by the central government, called the Commonwealth, and the central agencies. Participants were also undecided on whether the Australian federal system is flexible enough to function well in the absence of formal constitutional change.

Perhaps the most controversial topic was the capacity of the federal system to switch to a co-operative form of federalism following the federal election in which current Labour Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was elected in November 2007. The period in power of Rudd’s predecessor, John Howard, was perceived as one of "coercive federalism.”

Participants agreed that for the previous decade relations between the states and the Commonwealth were weak. Some participants said that hints of these negative relations were recently revived by the increased workload imposed by the Council of Australian Government (COAG) Reform Agenda and by the Rudd government’s attempts to have state governments help implement Rudd’s election promises. Other participants, however, spoke more favourably bout the prospects for genuine co-operation among the current federal and state governments.

The topic that generated the most interest was that of the autonomy afforded to first ministers and other ministers when they participate in COAG and ministerial council meetings.

The sole participants at the COAG meetings are the prime minister, state premiers, the chief ministers of the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory, and the president of the Australian Local Government Association.

Time constraints mean that some policy decisions are taken without premiers and chief ministers consulting their respective cabinets. At Ministerial Council meetings attended by federal and state ministers, it appears that most ministers have a degree of autonomy depending upon how the prime minister and premiers want to manage their cabinets.

In cases where policy matters are restricted to a minister’s portfolio and do not constitute a budgetary item, the ministers usually have some autonomy.

But in so-called "whole-of-government matters,” ministers tend to refer issues outside their portfolio back to their cabinet. Occasionally, ministers exceed their authority and end up being disciplined. Interestingly, it was learned that in an effort to ensure accountability, ministers from the state of South Australia have to present a paper to their cabinet colleagues both before and after ministerial council meetings.

The roundtable took place on March 31, 2009, at the University of Technology in Sydney Australia and was co-ordinated by John Phillimore, professor and executive director of the Curtin University of Technology.

Participants included: Linda Botterill, Australian National University; Dominic Cardy, Forum of Federations; Meredith Edwards, University of Canberra; Adam Fennessy, Department of Premier and Cabinet (Victoria); Jeffrey Harwood, Curtin University of Technology; Morris Iemma, former premier of New South Wales; David Kemp, former minister, Australia and New Zealand School of Government; Brad Kinsella, Department of Premier and Cabinet (Queensland); Ken Matthews, National Water Commission; Jenny Menzies, Council for the Australian Federation; Mary Ann O’Loughlin, COAG Reform Council; Andrew Podger, Institute of Public Administration Australia; Graham Sansom, University of Technology Sydney; John Schmidt, formerly of the New South Wales cabinet office; Tanya Smith, Department of Premier and Cabinet (South Australia); Anne Twomey, University of Sydney; and Adam Wand, Commonwealth Parliament.

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