It was a historic first at a historic location. One prime minister, six premiers, two chief ministers and the president of the Australian Local Government Association met outside the normal layers of Council of Australian Governments protocol in the comfort of the Regency-style Victoria Barracks in Sydney on Wednesday.
Northern Territory Chief Minister Adam Giles asked for support for the NT to become Australia’s seventh state by July 1, 2018 — the 40-year anniversary of self government, and 20 years after the failed 1998 referendum. The resolve for NT statehood was agreed to unanimously. Giles will report on progress at the next meeting of COAG later this year.
The leaders issued a communique declaring that “now is the time for leadership” in federation reform, or Australians would face the risk of declining services in the future:
“The key to providing the services Australians aspire to is a more productive and faster growing economy. Improving the way our Federation works will improve Australia’s overall fiscal position and our national productivity. Achieving this reform will require both the Commonwealth and the sates to make policy changes that would both improve the climate for business, and ensure more efficient delivery of government services while keeping taxes as low as possible.
“Now is the time for an honest and candid conversation with the Australian people about these issues. Now is the time to bring forward a plan for Australia’s future, with party politics put aside, which examines the roles and responsibilities of the different levels of government.”
An expert panel was brought in to present the issues ahead of the formal green paper due later this year, after which the leaders unanimously agreed to focus reform on health, education, infrastructure and housing.
Individual leaders will also take on specific reform areas before the next COAG meeting:
- School Education (QLD Premier and ACT Chief Minister),
- Health (Victorian and Tasmanian Premiers),
- Training (WA and Victorian Premiers),
- Revenue and Housing (NSW and QLD Premiers),
- Early Childhood Learning (SA Premier, NT Chief Minister and the President of the Australian Local Government Association ALGA), and
- Indigenous (NT Chief Minister and WA Premier).
“While Australia has one of the most efficient healthcare systems in the world, Leaders agreed that health is a top priority for all levels of government with a serious funding challenge made more difficult by our ageing population. The NSW Premier delivered a presentation that highlighted the growing gap facing all states on health and hospitals funding. A new focus on primary care and keeping people out of hospital is necessary. When it comes to chronic care, the issue of diabetes, heart disease and mental health require particular attention. There was also recognition of the need to consider working towards extending Medicare to cover treatments in hospitals based on efficient pricing.”
“Despite considerable increases in resources in recent years, Australian students are falling behind their international counterparts. We must arrest this decline. Increasingly, childcare is the delivery mechanism for early childhood learning. Leaders committed to improving the transition from early childhood learning to school including consideration of an earlier start to school, greater equity in the application of childcare funding to learning for the year before “school and improving the standard of teachers which is critical to delivering better educational outcomes.”
Employment and training
“A better trained workforce is essential to grow our economy and create jobs but there is a misalignment between the jobs we train people for and the jobs business needs doing. We must reform the vocational education and training sector so that training helps young people get jobs when they finish, as well as providing real pathways for older workers to transition between careers. Leaders committed to change that will see a more demand driven system, greater engagement with business about their skills needs to deal with emerging industries and new ways to help support students. Leaders agreed to consider a shift in responsibility for VET to the Commonwealth provided States and Territories could elect to remain TAFE providers within a national system.”
“Leaders agreed that infrastructure was critical to how people live and move around our cities and regions. Local governments also play a role in the Federation by delivering services and infrastructure at the local level with important funding contributions from the Commonwealth and within a legislative and regulatory framework provided by the states and territories.”
“In relation to housing, Leaders focussed on greater access to affordable housing, increasing supply and better access for vulnerable people to social housing. The Leaders also recognised that a place to call home was a fundamental human need. There was agreement to look at ways to reduce spending duplication between the Commonwealth State Housing Agreements and the Federal government’s provision of rental assistance to low income people.”
The leaders asked for further work to quantify the scale of the fiscal gap, between what is currently available and what will be needed in the future, and in particular, health funding, together with revenue options. The advice they heard yesterday was that the total fiscal gap was estimated at $45 billion with the health funding gap in particular set to rise to at least $35 billion per annum by 2030.
There was unanimous agreement to keep Commonwealth and state tax changes on the table including the GST and the Medicare levy.
As a first step, there was agreement in principle to broaden the GST to cover overseas online transactions under $1000. The next treasurers meeting will progress that proposal in detail.
The leaders said communication would improve and “encourage the community to join us in this national discussion”, which comes after criticism that the process to date has been opaque and inconsistent, from expert watchers like Melbourne Law School Laureate Professor Cheryl Saunders.
Top image: AAP Image/Mick Tsikas