Beyond national cabinet: push for senate inquiry into australia’s federal system

Senator Rex Patrick

Independent Senator Rex Patrick today announced plans to initiate a comprehensive Senate inquiry into the future of Australia’s federal system of government.

“Coming after two years of the COVID-19 pandemic and unprecedented actions by Federal, State and Territory Governments, the Federal election provides a logical jumping off point for a fundamental review and reset of Australia’s Federation to meet the challenges and opportunities of the 21st Century.”

“The Senate, the ‘states house’ of the Federal Parliament, needs to take a deep dive into the working of our Federal system. We need to identify lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic experience. We need to ensure that Federal-State government relations are properly transparent and accountable to parliaments and the public. We need to look ahead to see whether the current, ad hoc machinery is fit for purpose and delivers fair outcomes for all Australians, especially the smaller States and regional and remote Australia.”

“In the initial weeks of the COVID crisis, Prime Minister Scott Morrison together with the State Premiers and Territory Chief Ministers demolished the longstanding machinery of Federal-State relations, the Council of Australian Government, and replaced it with an ad hoc crisis management arrangement known as National Cabinet.”

“Within that improvised framework, Mr Morrison pursued a highly secretive and unaccountable approach to Federal-State relations and Australian Government policy more broadly.”

“Claims of Federal Cabinet secrecy were illegally extended not only to National Cabinet itself, but also the other bodies including the work of the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (NHPPC), the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) and the now defunct National Covid-19 Commission.”

“In fact most Federal-State bodies are now operating under a claimed cloak of absolute Cabinet secrecy. Information that was previously accessible under Freedom of Information and parliamentary processes is now denied.”

“The Prime Minister’s attempt to shield National Cabinet decision-making from all scrutiny was emphatically rejected by Federal Court Judge Richard White in August 2021, and a subsequent Government Bill to enforce such secrecy was effectively rejected by the Senate. However politically-driven bureaucratic obstruction from the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet has continued.”

“This state of affairs has involved an unprecedented erosion of long-established principles of Ministerial responsibility and parliamentary and public accountability for Federal, State and Territory Governments.”

“Whatever the outcome of the Federal election, it is now timely to take a very close look at the working of our Federal system.”

“Although National Cabinet did manage Australia’s initial response to the Covid pandemic, it’s effectiveness progressively declined with the Prime Minister’s incessant politicking triggering increasingly acrimonious and unproductive blame games between the Commonwealth, States and Territories.”

“National Cabinet, which last met on 11 March, has run its course. It will be time to make a fresh start after the election and the need to rebuild productive Federal-State relations is clear.”

“We need to ensure that in the future Federal-State relations are conducted with maximum transparency and accountability. False claims of Cabinet confidentiality should not be used to stymie scrutiny of vast swaths of public administration including decisions that directly impacts on millions of Australians.”

“Greater transparency is critical to efforts to ensure that all parts of Australia secure a fair share of Federal and State Government infrastructure investment and can access essential transport, telecommunications, health and social services.

“Whoever forms the next Federal Government after the election needs to spend a lot more time on reforming the system than working out which marginal electorates they want to spray taxpayers’ funds at. As the radical malapportionment of Federal election promises by both the Coalition and Labor shows, the Federal system is currently failing many parts of Australia and we must fix that.”

“A comprehensive Senate inquiry, taking evidence from the Federal, State and Territory Governments, but equally if not more importantly from an enormous range of stakeholders across the country, is essential if we are to build a political coalition able to move beyond partisan and parochial self-interest and make our Federation work in the national interest for all Australians.”

“Federal-State relations is far from the sexiest issue in this election. It barely features in the campaign announcements of the Coalition or Labor which are both proposing little more than old wine in new bottles.”

“But this is something that must be fixed if we are to have a chance at repairing our broken and dysfunctional national politics. If re-elected to the Senate I’ll be putting in the hard yards to make a difference on this.”

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