As Conran said at the beginning of the report:
The intention is to bring implement the change of intergovernmental arrangements arising from the abolition of COAG and subsequent adoption of the National Cabinet model of administration.
In approaching the task that I had been set by National Cabinet I reflected upon advice given to me by Professor Brendan Murphy and Ms Caroline Edwards from the Commonwealth Department of Health. Their comments were in relation to the former COAG Health Council (CHC) and the Australian Health Ministers’ Advisory Council (AHMAC) but they could apply equally to most, if not all, former COAG councils and ministerial forums.
“The former CHC and AHMAC that supported it were inefficient and often ineffective:
- Complex convoluted arrangements
- Slow processes with over-engineering of issues
- Excessive focus on secretariat functions
- Significant funding expended on low priority projects with indeterminate timeframes and on excessive secretariat costs including meeting arrangements and catering
During COVID, these processes were basically abandoned as ministers and CEOs instead met regularly by informal teleconference without administrative processes to cut through issues and achieve cooperation and coordination on key issues. These truncated, accelerated processes achieved faster, better outcomes. There has been little or no impact of the numerous projects left un-progressed in the meantime and state, territory and Commonwealth Health Department CEOs agree that much of the activity and structures of the former arrangements can cease.”
These comments explain what has gone wrong: too much process and formality, too many meetings for the sake of meetings and a tendency to admire problems rather than a disciplined focus on delivering outcomes. They explain the frustrations of First Ministers with former COAG processes and why they considered it necessary to completely reset how they should operate.
As the Prime Minister said in a press conference after National Cabinet on 29 May 2020: “It is important that ministers at state and federal level talk to each other but they don’t have to do it in such a bureaucratic form with a whole bunch of paperwork attached to it…They come together to solve problems, deal with issues and move on.”
At its core, Conran found:
- there were too many ministerial committees or councils;
- there was too much bureaucracy supporting these committees; and
- due to the need to find consensus, decisions took too long
This consultancy agreed with the the Prime Minister when he said the COAG process was somewhere where ‘good ideas go to die’.
Irrespective of policy area, decisions move through the process at a trickle as a committee (typically called a ‘senior officers’ committee) searched for consensus – which in many circumstances constituted the lowest common denominator.
In many circumstances, recommendations never even reached Ministers.
For this reason, the end of standing secretariats, senior officer committees and other generalist, non-technically specialist entities supporting the intergovernmental process is probably a good idea.
Conran particularly found:
Ministers should actively shape the direction of their work program. Priority items should be initiated by ministers rather than officials and resolved in a specified time period, generally less than 12 months.
Work programs for ministers’ meetings should only deal with and resolve national strategic priorities.
The idea that decisions should be made within a 12 month framework is highly appropriate.
A set deadline imposes accountability and is now far more possible to achieve now all jurisdictions (the Commonwealth excepting) effectively have fixed four year parliamentary terms.
However, there are a few areas require either greater clarification or consideration.
- What goes to a National Cabinet Reform Committee and what goes to a ‘meeting of ministers’ a ‘forum’ or to officials;
- How decisions relating to the development or application of national uniform legislation are to be made;
- Whether the creation of a structure allowing Ministers to concentrate on ‘two or three’ things will mean there is bureaucratic capture of decision making of other, ‘non-focus’ interjurisdictional matters (particularly the development of regulatory instruments) via another route; and
- The importance of the regulatory impact statement in decision making.
These are discussed in the next article.
 See the proposed rationalised structure on pages 5-6 of Conran and the discussion on pages 24-25
 See for example the comments on page 17 of Conran