The federalism white paper process — launched only months ago — has already been tarnished, South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill said in a rare appearance before a federal Senate hearing.
Taking aim at the health cuts announced in the federal budget, Weatherill said the ripping up of six national health partnership agreements threatened that process as nether side could trust the other in future agreements. Weatherill told the Select Committee on Health on Thursday:
“We hear the language that governments should be sovereign in their own sphere, therefore states should take responsibilities for public hospitals, commonwealth should have responsibility for other elements of the system. Nobody is seriously suggesting the states and territories can wear a cut of this size. It’s plainly an attempt to steal a march on one of the parties going into a negotiation on the future of federation, a process we’d already agreed to resolve.
“This notion of sovereign in your own sphere. If it makes sense for anything, it certainly doesn’t make sense for health. There are so many complex interrelationships between the commonwealth and the states in relation to health, it’s impossible for one level of government to regard itself as an island and think it can conduct its affairs independently of the other level of government. Indeed, each will frustrate the other’s objectives if that were to happen. You only need to look at what has happened with the policy proposal about the $7 co-payment.
“The beauty of the current agreement is that both parties have skin in the game, both have responsibility of the public hospital system.”
Six national agreements covering responsibilities of health and ageing departments are due to be axed under the federal budget proposals, including:
- The national health reform agreement;
- The national partnership agreement on improving public hospital services;
- The national partnership agreement on financial assistance for long stay older patients;
- The national partnership agreement on preventive health;
- The national partnership agreement on indigenous early childhood development, and;
- The national health partnership on payments.
Weatherill says these changes amounted to, for South Australia, “not inconsiderable” cuts to the equivalent of losing 600 beds, 3000 nurses, or doubling the state’s elective surgery waiting time. He told the committee the result would go beyond just health:
“The relationship between the commonwealth and the states here … is at stake. Each of these agreements are signed agreements between the commonwealth and the states. It’s a pretty fundamental matter that you abide by the agreements that you enter into. It’s fundamental to the way the federation works. In fact, it’s difficult to see how the federation could properly work if one or other of the parties decides to unilaterally breach agreements entered into.”
The white paper process was agreed at the Council of Australian Governments meeting in May, prior to the federal budget, and the terms of reference released by Prime Minister Tony Abbott in June. A taskforce created by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet has begun work on the white paper, which will be overseen by the Federation White Paper Steering Committee, chaired by the Commonwealth. States, territories and the Australian Local Government Association have been invited to participate in the committee.
An issues paper is due before the end of 2014, the green paper early next year and the final white paper by the end of 2015.