In 2006, the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) adopted a new national reform agenda and established the COAG Reform Council, developments which were later used as a foundation for the first Rudd Government’s reforms to intergovernmental relations in Australia. These reforms used COAG as their focus and established a revised federal financial relations scheme and a broader reform agenda. They also gave the COAG Reform Council an expanded role in measuring the progress of reform across all jurisdictions and reporting its findings to COAG.
The apparatus of COAG and intergovernmental relations now encompasses an extensive system of COAG Councils and other fora, as well as less visible forms of collaboration, which take place between the agencies and officers of all levels of government. This structure is largely focussed on developing and implementing the COAG reform agenda, which covers a wide range of policy fields, including education, skills and training, health, housing and homelessness, the environment and regulatory reform. This policy agenda is underpinned by the revised financial framework that is embodied in the Intergovernmental Agreement on Federal Financial Relations. The reforms to COAG and its processes instituted by the first Rudd Government have changed the character of COAG, arguably transforming it from a leaders’ summit to a central institution of government. This new significance of COAG has given rise to renewed concerns relating to the lack of permanency, transparency and accountability in intergovernmental relations.
This paper provides an overview of the operation of COAG, and other aspects of intergovernmental relations in Australia. A two-part approach has been taken.
Part One provides a ‘bare bones’ overview of the framework of COAG and its reform agenda. Its aim is to provide a kind of ‘mud map’ to enable relatively easy navigation of the labyrinthine structure of COAG, its associated Councils and its current reform agenda. Much of the information contained in the first part is taken from COAG-related websites. In an attempt to make this map clear, commentary and critique has been left to Part Two of the paper, to the extent that this is possible.
COAG is something of an atypical body or institution, neither constitutional nor statutory in origin or nature. It is more amorphous, an administrative creation of executive will, resistant to neat description or characterisation. It is something of a moveable feast, constantly changing and adapting to political and other circumstances. Any description of it can therefore only hope to capture its working at a particular point in time. It is this task that Part One of this paper has set itself, relying solely on publicly available material.
Part Two provides an overview of some of the current evaluations of COAG, in light of its apparent transformation, and also some of the suggestions for reform that have been put forward. Part Two does not attempt to cover all of the relevant issues that are identified in the literature about federalism and intergovernmental relations. Its aim is rather to canvass some of these issues in a broad way while focussing primarily on COAG.
Discussed in Part Two are the following issues with COAG and the practice of intergovernmental relations in Australia:
- Lack of transparency in intergovernmental relations;
- Accountability – COAG, intergovernmental relations and Parliaments;
- Commonwealth’s dominance of COAG;
- Lack of institutional structures and systems; and
- COAG and the consequences of intergovernmental relations.
Many of the problems associated with intergovernmental relations in Australia can be traced back to the features of Australia’s federal structure, which continues to influence and shape the ways in which governments transact their affairs. The continuing relevance of the issues discussed in Part Two of this paper suggest the need for considered evaluation of Australian federalism in the twenty-first century, what it is, what it does, what it should do and where it is going.