Opinion: Aussies support the national cabinet, but they are hungry for ambitious reform

By Harry Guinness

Wednesday July 22, 2020

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Getting nine in 10 Australians to agree to anything is a rarity in our partisan political world. Increasingly, it is our growing distrust of politicians that brings us together. Thus, some quarters must welcome the news that 89% of Australians support the Prime Minister’s decision to abandon the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) and permanently extend the successful national cabinet, as the newly formed think tank Blueprint Institute found in a recent poll.

History shows us that ambitious reform won’t be simple

Over the past decade, all sides of politics have witnessed the corrosive influence of extreme ideology in our political system. From the endless culture wars surrounding climate change, to immigration policy and the debates over Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, our leaders seem to get stuck in the chasm between base-building ideology and a focus on outcomes that the public expects of politics.

The recent performance of the Prime Minister — leveraging the national cabinet to lead the world in our health and economic response to COVID-19 — demonstrates the power of leadership that focuses on outcomes in the national interest. His performance as prime minister during the COVID-19 crisis has been broadly celebrated, with opinion polls showing his popularity is at a higher level than any PM since Kevin Rudd’s victory in 2007.

Who would have thought a governance reform like the national cabinet could get such broad coverage in the press, drive positive commentary from talkback radio hosts and journalists alike, and win the support of nine out of every 10 Aussies?

There was a saying that the late COAG was “where good ideas go to die”. Ministers or officials would reportedly send ideas they didn’t like to the meeting in the hope they would be caught up in the classic cycle of briefings, meetings, briefings about meetings, and, eventually, death by terminal buck-passing. A lot of very good advice and policy was ignored; state and federal ministers had the option of blaming others for their lack of progress.

The public calls for the national cabinet to have a broader mandate than just ‘jobs’

New Blueprint Institute polling offers a snapshot of the top issues that Australians would like the national cabinet to focus on. It would come as little surprise that the public wants our leaders to get people back to work. Of the issues Australians want the national cabinet to resolve, creating jobs in the short term ranked third, at 55%. On this issue, leaders are undoubtedly focussed and rightly so. Surprisingly, the even higher ranked issues in the Blueprint Institute poll were addressing environmental problems like drought, water management and climate change (58%), followed closely by improving the health system (57%).

When it comes to complex areas of policy, solutions that can meet multiple objectives are particularly attractive. On the environment, for instance, 88% of Australians (and 79% of Coalition voters) would support investment in renewables to promote post-COVID recovery; only 12% of voters thought we should invest in fossil fuels. In a similar vein, almost three- quarters of respondents to Blueprint Institute polling thought that a strong economy is not important without a healthy environment.

These numbers suggest politicians will be rewarded for investment that creates jobs and protects the environment. In addition, thoughtful investment in health infrastructure could be both prudent and popular. Health and environment policy are traditional political battlegrounds; evidence-based reform will require a laser focus on outcomes to avoid the policy inertia of the past.

The national cabinet is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for ambitious reform

Through the national cabinet, our leaders have an opportunity to collaborate on shared challenges and work in the national interest. Australians have the highest hopes that the cabinet will become a place where good ideas are implemented swiftly and decisively. Its emergence is surely one of the silver linings of the pandemic.

For this vision to be realised, however, the Prime Minister and state premiers will have to maintain common ground and avoid regressing to the issues that plagued COAG. A focus on resolving long-term challenges, not just short-term economic measures to respond to COVID-19, would be welcome. The fact that the cabinet will consider revised targets for Closing the Gap suggests it has recognised the opportunity with which it is presented — to work together to improve the lives of some of Australia’s most vulnerable.

With the nation currently experiencing its first recession in 29 years, the public expects the national cabinet to continue to show strong leadership. Collaborative and efficient decision making can help dislodge inertia in industrial relations and tax policy to be sure. But politicians should not lose sight of the opportunity for other big picture reform, and Australians are eager improvements to the health system and better coordinated energy and climate policy.

Energy policy has been described as the ‘rail gauge’ issue of this century because of regulatory and market distortions which produce higher prices for consumers and higher carbon emissions than necessary.  Like the rail gauge issue of times past, the states and federal government can resolve this issue. At the end of July, the Australian Energy Market Operator will release its 2020 Integrated Systems Plan — a comprehensive roadmap for industry and government to achieve an affordable, secure and reliable energy future, while meeting emissions trajectories. Reflecting on a key learning of COVID-19, notably that decisive leadership informed by science is a strong basis for public policy, a comprehensive plan to resolve our energy transmission system sounds like a winner.

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