The COAG communique from today’s COAG meeting, posted this afternoon, signals the new Abbott government plans a more respectful relationship with State and Territory governments. It notes, ‘The Commonwealth respects the States and Territories are sovereign in their own sphere. they should be able to get on with delivering on their responsibilities, with appropriate accountability and without unnecessary interference from the Commonwealth’. If this translates into reality, it will mark a major shift away from the centralisation that has characterised intergovernmental relations over recent decades.
The Communique also flags a change in operational tempo. First ministers agreed that COAG will meet twice yearly, in April and November and that it will ‘focus on a few important national priorities, and on outcomes rather than process’. Cooperation towards lifting Australia’s productivity will its ‘major, ongoing focus’. Infrastructure and deregulation to reduce the burden of red-tape, especially for small business are two of the headline issues. Leaders also discussed the Coalition’s signature election commitment – its Paid Parental Leave scheme, improving outcomes for Indigenous Australians and implementation of the NDIS.
The Communique’s language is simple; its tone practical and cooperative. Premiers, Chief Ministers and their officials, federalism analysts and scholars will be encouraged by the commitment to reduce the ‘bureaucracy and red-tape’ that has grown up around COAG. We will see. But fiscal constraints and recognition the Commonwealth’s capacity is overstretched offers the best opportunity we’ve had for some time to redress the balance of federal-state relations in the Australian federation.