News National Dennis Atkins: Is national cabinet the best thing since Federation? Probably not

Dennis Atkins: Is national cabinet the best thing since Federation? Probably not

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The national cabinet has been around for four months, pulled together during a meeting of state and federal leaders in Sydney’s western suburbs and already heralded as the greatest reform of federation.

There’s no doubt the “heads of government only” forum was an inspired creation that was fit for purpose; a focussed, problem-solving body assembled to tackle unprecendented health and economic crises.

At first, the national cabinet met at least twice weekly, tackling life-changing issues such as shuttering sectors of commercial activity.

The national cabinet is now part of our federation furniture – having replaced the 30-year-old Council of Australian Governments and shaken up the complex and confusing system of committees and small deliberative groups.

The regular meeting schedule is now reduced to every second Friday, with no more than two hours of discussion using the familiar COVID-19 technology of teleconferencing.

As new community spread cases in Melbourne broke record day after day, the most dangerous outbreak so far in the spread of the coronavirus has not been enough to disturb the meeting schedule.

Much has been made of Scott Morrison’s national cabinet. But it’s already proving over-hyped.

There was no emergency meeting, and conversations – mainly between Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Victoria’s Daniel Andrews – were just part of the daily talk in handling the latest turn of events.

Even when New South Wales was seriously impacted – with knock-on consequences for Queensland, South Australia and the Northern Territory – it wasn’t seen as urgent enough to bring the leaders together.

It sure looks like the national cabinet is not the dynamic and agile body which can gather quickly, listen to the best scientific and economic advice, and respond effectively in the immediate national interest.

The Victorian outbreak and the return to a Stage 3 lockdown threatened to choke off a quarter of the national economy just as it was emerging from the initial national shut down, something debated and agreed at the national cabinet four months ago.

The national cabinet met just over a week ago and discussed Victoria’s challenges but the conversation was little more than sapping notes on what had already been done – other states were sending health officials to help along with other personnel to assist in the burgeoning contact tracing task.

Leaders like the national cabinet because of its uncluttered agenda and sharply defined “to do” list.

Some compare the meetings to the CoAG dinners held the night before the formal proceedings when they talk without staff in a freewheeling manner.

In reality, the national cabinet is nothing more than a powerful adjunct to the executive government with the final say resting with the Prime Minister.

According to constitutional law expert, Anne Twomey, the national cabinet’s legal status is that of a “cabinet office policy committee” with the PM its only permanent member and any decisions taken are subject to effective ratification or alteration by the federal cabinet – without reference to any of the other leaders.

As Twomey observes: “The Prime Minister controls its membership, sets its agenda and determines when and where meetings take place.

Where the committee cannot agree, the Prime Minister’s view is authoritative.”

So much for reform of the federation.

Morrison likes the national cabinet because it gives apparent backing to a key aspect of his reshaped brand as a consultative, consensus leader.

He looks like the chairman of the board – which he is – but with ultimate power and authority over all decisions and the agenda being followed.
The PM has the final say over national cabinet decisions. Photo: TND

So far the national cabinet’s role in dealing with COVID-19 and its economic fallout has been successful out of necessity.

The imperative has been to pull in one direction and we have been able to do that without the partisan, anti-science madness that’s poisoned the battle against the virus in places like the United States.

However, any real test will come when there is a clash of priorities and values – something already apparent in the industrial relations working groups Morrison set up as an extension of the work done dealing with the economic shocks arising out of handling the virus.

The limits of Morrison’s real commitment to the national cabinet can be seen in the absence of any role in the big economic policy debates and decisions around the response to the impact of COVID-19.

Next week Treasurer Josh Frydenberg will outline where the national economy stands, where it’s headed and what might be rolled out beyond the current late September cut off for various support payments.

This is a national government only affair.

Despite impacting millions of Australian workers and tens of thousands of businesses, there’s no place for a national cabinet in these matters.