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Common(wealth) Knowledge #90: Australia to formally abandon COAG, make First Ministers' Council permanent

Legislation before the Senate to formally abolish all legislative references to COAG.

On 7 February, the House of Representatives voted to streamline ‘outdated’ legislation that still referred to the Council of Australian Governments and replace it with the ‘First Ministers’ Cabinet,’ the rebranded ‘National Cabinet’ from the COVID-19 pandemic.

COAG was established in 1992, but Prime Minister Scott Morrison abandoned it on 29 May 2020.

According to Professor Anne Twomey, COAG “had become too bogged down in bureaucracy to be able to respond quickly to the crisis.”

This view was shared by the Review of COAG Council and Ministerial Forums, which gave its final report to the National Cabinet on 23 October 2020.

COAG’s replacement, the National Cabinet, was created as a smaller body that would meet more often and allow better cooperation among the Commonwealth, State, and Territory governments.

National Cabinet, now the First Ministers’ Cabinet, consists of only the Prime Minister, Premiers, and the Chief Ministers of the Northern Territory and Australian Capital Territory.

Check out Common(wealth) Knowledge #36 for more on First Ministers.

The COAG Legislation Amendment Bill 2023 (Cth) will also rename the ‘COAG Reform Fund,’ which allows the Commonwealth government to make financial assistance grants to the States and Territories, will also be renamed to the ‘Federation Reform Fund.’

But COAG is not the only body to get a makeover by this bill.

Various Ministerial Councils have also developed in the executive to promote cooperation around particular issues. Professor Gerard Carney suggests that they play a “pivotal role,” alongside the High Court, as a “mechanism” for “the resolution of federal conflicts,” claiming that they pick up the role that the Senate is meant to play, but fails to do so when “it is divided on party lines.”

However, this bill would provide a uniform, but flexible, definition of these bodies, and standardise their names:

“Ministerial Council means a body (however described) that consists of the Minister of the Commonwealth, and the Minister of each State and Territory, who is responsible, or principally responsible, for matters relating to [portfolio].”

The President of the Australian Local Government Association, previously a member of COAG, will not be a member of the FMC. The streamlining of the FMC means that the States and Territories will help represent local governments that they have jurisdiction over.

Check out Common(wealth) Knowledge #62 for more on the relationship between local governments, States and Territories, and the Commonwealth government.

As Twomey observed, COVID-19 demonstrated that the councils have less importance when it comes to federal and national matters.

However, the definition of the FMC says that it “consists only of, or that includes,” First Ministers. The Explanatory Memorandum provided by the government states that the word ‘includes’ may allow the creation of a broader body which may include the President of the Australian Local Government Association.”

Although this is a new era for cooperative federalism in Australia, as Professor Carney wrote in 2006, “COAG could disappear as quickly as it appeared. But its legacy would remain.”

The bill is currently before the Senate.

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