‘Undemocratic, opaque, ad hoc’: does COAG still work?

COAG plays an important role in Australia’s federal system. But are its decisions rushed and undemocratic? Federation reform requires another look at the premiers’ meeting.

Before he was elected as New South Wales premier, Barry O’Farrell warned the Council of Australian Governments at times resembles “a fourth arm of government” with extensive power over funding and policy, despite having a basis in neither the constitution nor statute. But in a federation of states with shared governmental responsibility, is there any other way?

A review of federation arrangements by the federal government has opened up a new debate on intergovernmental relations. And a decision by the Abbott government to abandon the COAG Reform Council — a secretariat designed to oversee and monitor agreements — is feeding concerns over a lack of rigidity and transparency in negotiations and agreements, and the centralisation of power in Canberra.

Since emerging in 1992 out of the Special Premiers’ Conferences, COAG has waxed and waned in significance. Reforms under the Rudd government saw the forum move from a leaders’ summit to something more central to the operation of the federation. This has increased qualms about how it functions, with calls to give the states more control while making the forum more permanent and transparent.

Jennifer Menzies, a former secretary for the Council for the Australian Federation and member of the Commonwealth Grants Commission, believes the ad hoc nature of COAG inhibits its potential effectiveness. “As a federation, Australia has under-invested in the mechanisms to manage the relationship between the different levels of government,” she said. “COAG is dependent on the whim of the prime minister who controls both the number of meetings and the agenda … I believe there needs to be greater institutionalisation of COAG.”

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