1 June 2020
Senator Rex Patrick today cautioned that Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s National Cabinet, which brings State Premiers together underneath him rather than alongside him, will significantly weaken the position of the Australian states while also expanding government secrecy and undermining responsible government.
“While National Cabinet has served Australia well in coordinating COVID-19 decision making, it is likely to have a pernicious longer-term effect on the Australian Federation,” Senator Patrick said. “The influence of the smaller states such as South Australia is likely to be further diminished in the new highly secretive National Cabinet process.”
On 13 March 2020 the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) agreed to Prime Minister Morrison’s proposal to establish a National Cabinet to coordinate Federal, State and Territory responses to the COVID-19 crisis. On 29 May 2020 the Prime Minister announced that COAG was abolished, to be replaced by National Cabinet as a permanent forum, the centrepiece of a broad shakeup of federal-state relations.
“By securing the agreement of the Premiers to abolishing the leading intergovernmental forum of COAG, the Prime Minister has shifted Federal power balance to the significant advantage of the Commonwealth and the clear disadvantage of States and Territories.”
“Although few commentators have paid much attention, it is highly significant that National Cabinet operates within the framework of the Federal Cabinet. The Prime Minister has made this clear as early as 15 March, saying that National Cabinet had been ‘established formally under the Commonwealth government's cabinet guidelines’.”
In a submission to the Senate Select Committee on COVID-19, the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet further explained that National Cabinet is actually constituted as a “Cabinet Office Policy Committee” and operates in accordance with established Federal Cabinet rules of collective responsibility, solidarity and confidentiality.
The Federal Cabinet Handbook, the latest edition approved by Prime Minister Morrison, states that the Prime Minister is ‘the final arbiter’ of Cabinet and Cabinet Committee membership, agenda, processes and decisions. In “exceptional circumstances where a collective decision is not possible the Prime Minister’s view is authoritative.’
Asked at the Senate Select Committee about the secrecy of National Cabinet, Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Secretary Philip Gaetjens confirmed that ‘the deliberations of the [National] cabinet and the decisions are protected.’ Last Friday, the Prime Minister reiterated that National Cabinet “operates under the Federal Cabinet's rules and that relates to the security of documents, process, procedure.’
“This is a profound shift in the operation of Federal-State relations”, Senator Patrick said.
“Unlike COAG where the Prime Minister, Premiers and Chief Ministers all enjoyed equal status, in National Cabinet the Premiers are the Prime Minister’s invited guests to a Federal Cabinet Committee.
“Whatever agreements may be reached between the Prime Minister and the Premiers, it is the Prime Minister who sets the agenda, has the last word and decides what can and cannot be said about those deliberations. In recent times the Prime Minister has sought to further expand Federal Cabinet secrecy, even having his Department argue that the dates of Cabinet meetings must be exempted from Freedom of Information release.”
“The Prime Minister is now not only the ‘final arbiter’ of National Cabinet confidentiality, his decisions on that are subject to enforcement under the secrecy provisions of the Commonwealth’s Criminal Code Act 1995.”
”The Premiers may well need to get legal advice before they speak publicly, or even talk to their state ministerial colleagues, about what goes on in National Cabinet. An unauthorised disclosure of National Cabinet deliberations, that is unauthorised by the Prime Minister, could potentially trigger an Australian Federal Police investigation – even if the disclosure took place within a State Cabinet meeting.”
“One wonders why the Premiers agreed to subordinate themselves to such a regime, though the likely impact of the COVID-19 crisis on state revenues leaves them with little option other than to go cap in hand to the Commonwealth for increased financial support. With financial dependence comes deeper political dependence.”
“As the National Cabinet agenda expands beyond COVID-19 to cover all those things previously dealt with at COAG, the Premiers will be all the more beholden to the Prime Minister and subordination of state leaders to National Cabinet secrecy could well undermine responsible government within the States.”
“National Cabinet is unquestionably a major power grab by the Scott Morrison and the Commonwealth bureaucracy behind him”, Senator Patrick said. “It is likely to be seen as a major milestone in the decline of Australian Federalism.”
“All this bodes ill for the smaller States such as South Australia and Tasmania which have been able to use the more public, consensus-based decision making of COAG to better protect the interests of their people. COAG might have been cumbersome and frustrating in its operation, but it did give the smaller states more leverage in the affairs of our nation than would otherwise be the case.”
“SA Premier Steven Marshall is unlikely to enjoy much advantage negotiating for South Australia on issues such as manufacturing, energy, water and the Murray-Darling Basin, in a closed, secretive Federal Cabinet process – a forum controlled by a Prime Minister with political interests firmly focused on the eastern Australia seaboard.”
“In these circumstances South Australia will have to rely all the more on our Senate representation – on Senators who put South Australia first and who are not afraid to press hard, using whatever legislative leverage is available, to secure for the best deals for our state.”
“Centre Alliance is the only South Australian party, free from wider political entanglements and conflicts of interests, that is free to put South Australia first. SA will need more of that sort of representation in the future."