Australians are ambitious for what the National Cabinet can achieve. But it must be vigilant against the risk that effective federal and state cooperation will dissipate once the COVID-19 crisis ends.
Throughout COVID-19 politicians have worked in tandem to minimise its health and economic impact through the National Cabinet. When Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced that the National Cabinet would continue after the crisis, the majority of Australians backed him in. Polling completed by Blueprint Institute over the weekend suggests that a massive 89% of Australians support the continuation of the National Cabinet.
Through the National Cabinet, decision makers have moved with utmost speed and agility; decisions that usually take months or years have been made in days. The results have been impressive. On a policy level, Australia has led the world on COVID-19, flattening the curve and saving lives. Decisions were made in the national interest with politics largely left at the door. This is what citizens expect of governments at all times, but particularly in times of crisis. Such reform is welcome and offers the opportunity for continued good governance.
However, COVID-19 has been unprecedented, and there is a risk that the lacklustre performance of federal and state cooperation will re-emerge after the crisis. Ineffective cooperation in COAG could easily be replaced by ineffective cooperation in the National Cabinet. It is critical that the National Cabinet adopts principles to negate this risk and work proactively to prevent regression to the status quo of ‘blame and shame’.
The Blueprint Institute has compiled a report that explains the opportunities and challenges that the National Cabinet will face. We outline four principles that the National Cabinet should adhere to so as to remain effective, agile, and fulfil the expectations of the Australian public.
First, the National Cabinet should be visionary. There are a multitude of problems facing Australia: from high energy prices and issues relating to the environment, to unemployment, to an unresponsive education system, to a burdensome regulatory environment that stunts the growth of small businesses that employ a majority of Australians. The effectiveness of the National Cabinet will lie in the outcomes that it produces, not its announcement. While the National Cabinet has been more agile and responsive than COAG, it is simply a change in process. It is critical that the Federal Government continues to provide leadership and vision on the long-term challenges facing the nation.
Second, the National Cabinet should embrace a vision of the federation as a flexible and agile system of governance. We should work to strengthen the federal system. The National Cabinet could provide greater autonomy to states, empowering them to better serve citizens in the areas of governance they are responsible for, and solving the issues that everyday Australians care about. The National Cabinet could consider examining the issue of fiscal imbalance between state and federal governments to determine opportunities to provide greater autonomy over state finances; such a move would likely improve the effectiveness of state government responses that are agreed through the National Cabinet, as well as returning the federal system to its roots.
We envisage a federation where states and territories test different policy approaches to suit the local context. A distributed decision-making process will allow states and territories to engage in ‘test and learn’ policy cycles, where different policies are trialed and their outcomes assessed at the National Cabinet. Such a model respects the separation of powers that is outlined in the constitution and keeps the federal government in check. The prime minister can leverage the state government apparatus to implement important reforms post-COVID that improve the lives of all Australians. This would encourage greater devolution and improve accountability.
Third, the National Cabinet should continue to involve experts. The success of the National Cabinet has been determined by its reaction to one crisis: COVID-19. Premiers, chief ministers and the prime minister shared a table with our chief medical officer and top scientists to determine Australia’s response to the virus. As the National Cabinet broadens its scope, we argue for the continued involvement of experts and civil servants in National Cabinet decisions. The involvement of public servants through working groups, as outlined by the prime minister, is of the utmost importance. High-quality and independent advice will ensure that the National Cabinet possesses the evidence it needs to make good policy. By maintaining involvement of civil servants in policy making, our political leaders will ensure that various stakeholders in all levels of government continue to be heard. Inspired leadership should not be dislocated from sound advice.
Fourth, the National Cabinet should prioritise inter-jurisdictional reform. The development of the National Cabinet provides a unique opportunity to tackle the difficult policy areas that will arise as a result of the pandemic and the economic recession that is on the horizon. If Australia is to weather the coming economic storm, we need to build alignment and common ground across the state and federal systems on areas of tax policy (such as broadening the GST), deregulation, industrial relations reform, welfare policy, and housing affordability. Many aspects of this reform agenda have already been discussed by Prime Minister Scott Morrison, including during his recent address to the National Press Club.
The National Cabinet offers a unique opportunity to address long term challenges. During COVID-19, it has been effective in ensuring the welfare of all Australians. As the immediacy of the current crisis subsides, there is a danger that the cooperation and effectiveness of the National Cabinet will dissipate. But the Australian public have seen what effective inter-jurisdictional governance can look like. They expect it to continue. If the National Cabinet can adhere to the five principles outlined above, Australia can build back better and address the challenge of looming recession. An effective and principled National Cabinet can lead the way.
Daniel D’Hotman is a senior researcher at the Blueprint Institute.