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Bracks’ federalism agenda: start with health, education

Eight years out of the job, Steve Bracks says he doesn’t miss being Victorian premier. “No, I don’t, because I chose to leave. I was there for eight years and had three election wins,” he said.

“I think if I was forced out I might miss it. Of course there are parts you miss — being in cabinet on Mondays, making decisions and implementing policies. But no, I enjoy in equal measure what I’m doing now post-politics.”

The 60-year-old is currently chair of Cbus Super, the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union’s industry fund, as well as playing special adviser on governance issues to Timor-Leste Prime Minister Xanana Gusm­ão and chair of the Deakin Foundation. But it’s his views on government — amid a debate on recasting the federation — The Mandarin wanted to hear.

As a former state leader who had his fair share of battles with Canberra, and a champion of the 2006 National Reform Agenda, Bracks is well placed to comment. He welcomes the Prime Minister’s federalism white paper process, provided it is more than a vehicle for validating pre-determined policy positions.

While he disagrees with proposals to increase either the scope or rate of the “regressive” GST, he thinks giving a defined share of the income tax to the states “would help them deliver services better”.

Institutionalising the Council of Australian Governments and making meetings more regular would help the reform process, too. “If you look at other countries that have a strong federal and state system, for example Canada, they do institute a similar sort of system and that works well for them,” he explained.

The COAG Reform Council “lost its way for a period” thanks to the Rudd government’s lack of priority-setting, argues Bracks. But the Abbott government’s decision to close it down was “a retrograde step” and it should be reinstated.

“The origin of the COAG Reform Council was to look at what no one government can do by itself. I helped start this when I was undertaking the reform process in Victoria, and it was picked up by the Howard government and the COAG Reform Council came out of that,” he told The Mandarin in his Melbourne office.

“For example, let’s say critical health. The task required is enormous in health prevention let alone dealing with critical health issues. We need a larger effort, and you can only have a larger effort through combination of the federal and state governments. That’s where the COAG Reform Council comes in. How do we do that? What is the share of taxation that accrues to either party as a result of that?

“For example, we know there’s going to be a lot of clawback benefit in investing in preventive health, in spending on the health system more broadly. How is that divided or accrued back from the inputs you put in to tackle it in the first place? COAG Reform Council is the best place to do that.”

“The areas I would nominate that we needed to look at are technical and further education and the training system.”

And the education system would benefit from increased clarity when it comes to federal-state arrangements.

“The areas I would nominate that we needed to look at are technical and further education and the training system. It’s a mixed responsibility there. I would argue that is an opportunity for total state responsibility — for the Commonwealth to be simply one of the funders, but the state to undertake the regulation and program delivery and the conduct of those programs,” he said.

University governance, he says, could gradually be handed over to the federal government, reflecting current funding arrangements.

Another change he proposes to improve the federation is the abolition of the federal-state ministerial councils (apart from the Standing Committee of Attorneys-General). He says they often represent the wrong interests.

“At the moment there are ministerial councils in education, health, consumer affairs, a whole range of areas. They tend to be a block on reform and change because they tend to represent the interest groups in their areas. If it needs to be changed, if you’ve got a strong COAG Reform Council, if you’ve got a strong first ministers’ meeting and you agree on reform to be undertaken, then you go back and prosecute in your own jurisdiction. You don’t need to be second-guessed by a ministerial council.

“The only one that I would recommend keeping is the meeting of attorneys-general. The rest should be left to the first ministers and the prime minister to prosecute back in their cabinets. You would have an enormous saving in abolishing those ministerial councils.”

Reform from the public sector out

The best policy work is being done at the state level, Bracks not surprisingly argues. Bureaucrats there should be allowed to get on with the job.

“I would say that the public service at a state level can be more effective, efficient and innovative and can really lead the way on policy development, which can then be picked up at the national level. That’s what we tried to do in Victoria by employing good quality people, having good quality structures, and therefore those reforms, including COAG Reform Council, came out of those processes,” he said.

“You tend to get a lot of atrophy at a federal level, departments are big, they’re second-guessing what’s happening across the states anyway. They’re not — except for Defence — into service delivery in any big way. So they lose their relevance. I would think you can reform significantly the federal-state arrangements to give more weight to some of the innovation at state level.”

An important factor in making the relationship between the executive and the bureaucracy work is ensuring the public service has a clear idea what the government wants, he says. “That is, the government has clear and well-articulated programs and that is shared with the public sector and they know exactly what is to be undertaken,” he said. “If it’s a partnership approach you will achieve so much more than if you mistrust the public sector in delivering your program.”

Ministerial advisers — a bugbear of many a public servant — should work on a different level. “I take the view, strongly, that the premier and the ministers are responsible, and advisers are not in any executive function,” Bracks said.

“They are there to ensure that the minister or the premier is aware of the issue, as well as compliance with policy, the effect of a particular decision publicly or the constituency effects of it. They’re not there to undertake policy development, they’re not there to execute programs. In my view, they should be invisible. If an adviser overreaches, it’s the minister’s responsibility. If an adviser tries to act as though they’re a public servant, it is the minister’s responsibility to control that and fix that.”

He thinks Victoria’s current Napthine government has mixed up its priorities in promoting the East West Link tunnel project, suggesting the state would enjoy greater benefits from investing that money in rail. Bracks argues they should be “extending the [city] loop to enable more trains to go in it, extending the arterial lines that go with that. The benefits of separating regional traffic from city traffic with the regional rail link will accrue soon after that.

“That’s where population growth demand is, that’s where employment growth demand is, and that’s going to relieve pressure on the roads enormously. Then after we do that, let’s have another look at other projects.

“Government is about where you set priorities. The current government believes that mass transit by road extensions and improvements is a greater priority than mass transit by public transport.”

He’s no stranger to PPPs, however. “We were the lead government in Australia on public-private partnerships,” he said.

“We did that for a particular reason — we wanted to get projects up which we could take off the balance sheet and have the private sector contribute to, pay for and operate, relieving the pressure on the public sector so we could direct our effort in infrastructure spending in the public sector to essential services such as hospitals and schools and others.

“I would say with PPPs that it’s got to be fit for purpose. Everything should not be done by a public-private partnership, but certain things should be done there, if it can assist in bringing in the expertise of the private sector for that particular project.”

Author Bio

David Donaldson

David Donaldson is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Melbourne. He's previously written for The Guardian and Crikey and holds a masters in international relations.