Final Report – Review of COAG Councils and Ministerial Forums

The establishment of National Cabinet, and subsequent ceasing of COAG, has provided a unique opportunity to reconsider and reset Australia’s intergovernmental architecture.

Executive summary

The establishment of National Cabinet, and subsequent ceasing of COAG, has provided a unique opportunity to reconsider and reset Australia’s intergovernmental architecture. COAG was a slow, bottom-up framework for intergovernmental cooperation that too often resulted in lowest common denominator outcomes. National Cabinet, in contrast, deals with issues quickly, based on advice from experts, with leaders dictating the priorities and parameters for their governments to implement. This efficient way of working needs to be replicated across our ministerial councils and forums.

On 29 May 2020, the Prime Minister announced that National Cabinet agreed to a review of the former COAG Councils and ministerial forums with a view to rationalise and reset their structure and work programs.  In much the same vein as First Ministers’ agile response to the COVID-19 pandemic, ministers need to engage differently to respond to intergovernmental issues affecting all Australians, and ensure they adapt their approach to current and future circumstances.

Australia’s federal structure, built upon reciprocal financial, legislative and policy responsibilities, requires intelligent cooperation on issues of strategic national significance. The recommendations of this review aim to ensure that Australians are served by a sustainable, effective, efficient and collaborative system of federal relations. As Professor Murphy commented, we need “dramatically streamlined arrangement[s]” where formal councils and forums are “replaced with informal meetings on a regular basis with minimal administrative support. While the group might discuss issues of mutual interest, decisions should be limited to issues of genuine federal interdependency.”

It is important to recognise the diversity between and within jurisdictions and the disparate nature of the challenges faced across the federation – where appropriate, decisions should be principles-based and allow individual jurisdictions to determine the best way to achieve agreed outcomes.

Many previous reviews have attempted to address concerns around the ineffective and inefficient nature of the intergovernmental architecture of the day and its failure to achieve significant outcomes.  Past reviews have aimed to reduce the number councils to help address this. Despite repeated attempts to rationalise bodies, they have continued to grow. Attempts to change work practices to improve productivity have been similarly unsuccessful.

This review aims to learn from these past experiences by recognising that the number and names of groups are not so important – successful, enduring reform will come by resetting how groups operate. To that end, there are a number of recommendations focussed on streamlining not just the bodies themselves, but their future operations. This includes a shift in focus from procedure to a collaborative work program and agenda setting mechanisms that assist in achieving outcomes and allow for more focussed decision-making.

The review developed three key objectives to assess the need for a forum: to enable national cooperation and consistency on enduring strategic issues; to address issues requiring cross-border collaboration; and, to perform regulatory policy and standard setting functions. These objectives were considered along with comprehensive consultation that included:

  • 67 interviews with ministers, former ministers and departmental secretaries
  • Two rounds of written surveys with council and forum ministers and their secretariats
  • Attendance at ministerial meetings.

A set of common themes emerged from the consultation, including a need to sharpen the focus on priority issues, avoid lengthy agendas of standing items, and provide a balance between long-term and short-term priorities. The consultation process also highlighted the benefits to be gained from ministers sharing information and building relationships to promote collaboration and best practice across jurisdictions. 

The review seeks to learn from National Cabinet’s approach to more responsive and efficient decision-making. It proposes reducing administration through rationalising groups of officials that support forums, abolishing secretariats and handling routine matters out-of-session or delegating them to officials. National Cabinet has also shown the benefit of increased ministerial control of agendas and not requiring officials to reach consensus on papers prior to ministerial consideration. Central to improved efficiency is also limiting each forum’s attention to two or three nationally significant priorities and setting timeframes for progressing those priorities.

These principles need to be equally applied to meetings of officials and I have recommended that ministers and department heads should be responsible for this.

The review also recommends reducing the number of forums to those necessary for intergovernmental policy collaboration and ongoing regulatory functions. Noting that rationalising forums through eight past reviews has not addressed ongoing issues affecting ministerial bodies, it must be emphasised that modifying their operational procedures is in many respects more important than changes to the number of ministerial forums. 

There is a need to maintain relationships between other governments.  New Zealand should continue their involvement in various meetings, where they add value to all parties. The Australian Local Government Association also has an important role in meetings where local governments have significant responsibilities, such as planning, infrastructure and community service provision.

This review has deliberately taken a strong approach to rationalising the structure and operations of Australia’s intergovernmental architecture, with the objective of ensuring all meetings are more targeted and progress issues to finality in a short period of time. In this regard, arguments could be made to have more regular, ongoing meetings. While there may be alternatives to the recommended approach, a line must be drawn somewhere. If we want to see real change in the way things operate then there will need to be a consistent and disciplined approach to justifying the existence of ongoing formal structures – especially when work can and should be progressed in a timely manner and through more efficient, informal means.

Ultimately, achieving successful reform will rest not in the approving of recommendations, or changing the number or structure of forums. It will come down to everyone within those structures maintaining a strong focus on delivering priority outcomes that improve the lives of Australians and the prosperity of our nation.