Beyond the national cabinet: Push for a Senate inquiry into Australia’s federal system

Independent Senator Rex Patrick today announced his intention to launch a full Senate inquiry into the future of Australia’s federal system of government.

“After two years of the COVID-19 pandemic and unprecedented actions by federal, state and territory governments, the federal election provides a logical starting point for a fundamental review and reset of Federation Australia to meet the challenges and opportunities of 21st Century.”

“The Senate, the ‘states house’ of the federal parliament, must delve deeply into the workings of our federal system. We must learn from the experience of the COVID-19 pandemic. We must ensure that federal-state relations are sufficiently transparent and accountable to parliaments and the public. We must look to the future to see if the current ad hoc mechanism is fit for purpose and producing fair results for all Australians, especially small states and regional and remote Australia.

“During the first few weeks of the COVID crisis, Prime Minister Scott Morrison, along with state premiers and territorial chief ministers, tore down the longstanding mechanism of federal-state relations, the Australian Government Council, and replaced it with an ad hoc crisis management mechanism known as the National Cabinet.

“In this improvised setting, Mr Morrison pursued a highly secretive and irresponsible approach to Federal-State relations and Australian Government policy more broadly.”

“Claims of Federal Cabinet secrecy have been unlawfully extended not only to the National Cabinet itself, but also to other bodies, including the work of the Australian Principal Health Protection Committee (NHPPC), the Australian Technical Advisory Group on vaccination (ATAGI) and the now defunct National Commission Covid-19.

“In fact, most federal state agencies now operate under the purported guise of absolute Cabinet secrecy. Information that was previously accessible through freedom of information and parliamentary processes is now withheld.

“The Prime Minister’s attempt to shield National Cabinet decision-making from scrutiny was flatly rejected by Federal Court Justice Richard White in August 2021, and a subsequent government bill to enforce this secrecy was effectively rejected by the Senate. However, politically motivated bureaucratic obstruction by the Prime Minister’s Department and the Cabinet continued.

“This state of affairs has resulted in an unprecedented erosion of long-established principles of ministerial responsibility and parliamentary and public accountability of federal, state and territory governments.”

“Whatever the outcome of the federal election, now is the time to take a very hard look at how our federal system works.”

“Although the National Cabinet managed Australia’s initial response to the Covid pandemic, its effectiveness gradually declined with the Prime Minister’s relentless policy setting off increasingly acrimonious and unproductive blame games between the Commonwealth, the States and Territories.”

“The National Cabinet, which met for the last time on March 11, has had its day. It will be time for a fresh start after the election and the need to rebuild productive federal-state relations is clear.

“We must ensure that in the future, relations between the federation and the state are conducted with maximum transparency and accountability. False declarations of Cabinet confidentiality must not be used to obstruct scrutiny of large swaths of public administration, including decisions that directly impact millions of Australians.

“Greater transparency is essential to ensure that all parts of Australia get a fair share of federal and state government infrastructure investment and can access essential transport, telecommunications, health and social services.

“Whoever forms the next federal government after the election will have to spend a lot more time reforming the system than figuring out which fringe voters he wants to spray taxpayers’ money at.” As the radical misallocation of federal election promises by the Coalition and Labor shows, the federal system is currently failing in many parts of Australia and we need to fix it.

“A comprehensive Senate inquiry, gathering evidence from federal, state and territory governments, but equally if not more important from a wide range of stakeholders across the country, is essential if we are to build a capable political coalition. to go beyond partisanship and parochialism. self-interest and to ensure that our Federation works in the national interest of all Australians.

“Federal-state relations are far from the sexiest issue of this election. It barely features in campaign ads from the Coalition or Labour, which offer little more than old wine in new bottles.

“But it is something that needs to be fixed if we are to have any chance of fixing our broken and dysfunctional national politics. If re-elected to the Senate, I will do everything I can to make a difference on this.

/Public release. This material from the original organization/authors may be ad hoc in nature, edited for clarity, style and length. The views and opinions expressed are those of the authors.

Norman D. Briggs