Michelle Grattan, University of CanberraScott Morrison will hold twice-weekly meetings of the national cabinet for the “foreseeable future”, as the government battles to get its slow and problem-laden vaccine rollout back on course.
The Prime Minister says he has asked national cabinet and health ministers to “move back to an operational footing” to tackle the program’s challenges.
This comes as the rollout is being recalibrated following the medical advice restricting the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine to people over 50. Morrison has refused to set a target date for having all those eligible and willing vaccinated with at least one shot, after abandoning the government’s previous October target.
Morison’s action on the national cabinet and his comments are his bluntest admission so far of the program’s difficulties, which started from its beginning and have multiplied ever since.
“There are serious challenges we need to overcome caused by patchy international vaccine supplies, changing medical advice and a global environment of need caused by millions of COVID-19 cases and deaths,” he said in a statement.
“This is a complex task and there are problems with the programme that we need to solve to ensure more Australians can be vaccinated safely and more quickly.”
He said the federal government was trying to deal with its issues “and I have been upfront about those”.
But states and territories were also tackling their own issues, he said.
“Working together we are all going to be in a better position to find the best solutions.”
The federal government has taken the main responsibility for the rollout, but it does not have the states’ experience at service delivery and this has added to the problems.
The new regime for national cabinet meetings will start on Monday and continue “until we solve the problems and get the programme back on track”. It has been recently meeting only about monthly.
Meanwhile, a second person has suffered a blood clot after receiving the AstraZeneca vaccine.
A woman in her 40s is recovering in the Darwin Hospital after being transferred from a regional hospital in northern Western Australia.
The Western Australian Health Minister, Roger Cook, said the woman was in a stable condition in ICU.
Earlier a man in his 40s in Melbourne developed a clot after receiving the vaccine.
Last week Morrison announced the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation had advised against giving AstraZeneca vaccine to people aged under 50.
On Monday more than 56,000 doses of Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines were administered.
The federal government, under pressure to expand and accelerate the return of stranded Australians, has pre-empted national cabinet by announcing the “cap” on these arrivals will be expanded from about 4,000 up to 6,000 a week.
After the announcement Western Australia immediately hit out, saying the national cabinet process was being flouted.
More than 25,000 people are presently registered as having expressed a wish to return, and there have been numerous hardship cases in the media and in representations to MPs offices.
The government says the new weekly caps will be: NSW 2,950 (present cap is 2,450), Queensland 1,000 (500), South Australia 600 (500), and Western 1,025 (525). Victoria, struggling out of its second wave, will not have any arrivals.
This adds up to only 5,575 but the government hopes the other jurisdictions will take some people, although there are not commercial airline services into the ACT, the Northern Territory or Tasmania.
The government wants the higher numbers operating by late this month.
The caps were imposed at the request of states, which were concerned at pressure on their quarantine facilities, in particular when Victoria, where there was a quarantine breakdown triggering the second wave crisis, stopped taking any returnees.
People wanting to come home are not just facing the problem of the cap but the difficulty of securing flights, and at reasonable prices.
Unveiling the higher cap Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack, who has responsibility for aviation, said he had written to premiers and territory leaders to tell them the caps for international flights based on quarantine levels.
“Not every Australian will be able to come home by Christmas, I accept that. But we want to get as many of those who need to come home, want to come home, paid for a ticket to come home, to be able to do so”, McCormack said.
The federal government says it has constitutional power over quarantine, and so does not need the states’ approval. But it will take the new quotas to Friday’s national cabinet.
Under the existing deal the states make the quarantine arrangements and carry the cost – although they are now charging returnees.
The opposition has called for the government to use RAAF planes to return some people. But the government says there are thousands of unused commercial seats, and the VIP fleet has only very small capacity. It also rejects calls for the use of federal facilities for some of the returnees, saying they are not available or suitable.
Attorney-General Christian Porter, asked on Perth radio whether WA had agreed, said he did not know but “we very much hope they will”.
WA premier Mark McGowan said he had not known about the announcement beforehand and described it as “very directly outside the spirit of the national cabinet”.
“I don’t really like the fact that this has been sprung via a press conference without a discussion with the people actually required to implement it,” McGowan said.
He warned of the risks of putting pressure on hotel quarantine and said using Commonwealth facilities should be looked at.
The federal government says it would consider ADF assistance with more quarantine, noting ADF personnel have been helping WA with hotel quarantine for weeks.
WA Health Minister Roger Cook said it was extraordinary the matter was being dealt with through a letter from McCormack and said Scott Morrison should call “his dogs off” and work with the premiers.
NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian said that after a request from the prime minister “I consulted my relevant ministers and the police commissioner, who is in charge of quarantine, and everybody said they could take on that extra load”. Her agreement was on the basis other states agreed.
Queensland premier Annastacia Palaszczuk also indicated her government was willing to take more people.
ensure that we get a co-ordinated response across the country to the many issues that relate to the management of the coronavirus.
Overall, the national cabinet seems to have lived up to this expectation. It has delivered an effective response to the pandemic and, for the most part, interactions between the first ministers seem to have been collegial.
This success has led to claims that it is a major advance in Australian federalism, which holds the key to transforming intergovernmental cooperation.
[The] national cabinet is finally doing what countless reviews, academics and government watchers have pleaded for. Governments of all colours, and their agencies, working as one, in a form of co-operative federalism many officials have only dreamed of.
Morrison is also a powerful advocate for this position. He declared national cabinet has helped to make the federation “more responsive and more co-ordinated than we’ve seen in many years”.
The new COAG
In light of the apparent success of the national cabinet, Morrison announced in May that it would become a permanent feature of Australian federalism, replacing the Council of Australian Governments. COAG was previously the central organisation for managing intergovernmental relations.
The national cabinet will meet more frequently than COAG – once a month when the pandemic is over.
A further difference is that it has been established as a subcommittee of the federal cabinet. This means the first ministers have been able to establish a freedom-of-information firewall around their deliberations, enabling their discussions to remain under lock and key for up to 30 years. Morrison has argued this enables the national cabinet to “operate like a fair-dinkum cabinet”, where first ministers can “have these discussions without sort of lifting the veil”.
The other purported benefit of this forum is that the first ministers have bound themselves to the decisions reached in national cabinet by agreeing to observe the conventions of collective responsibility and solidarity.
Despite its apparent successes, the national cabinet does not represent a major shift in the fundamental dynamics of intergovernmental relations in Australia.
Firstly, the veil of secrecy surrounding the national cabinet is not unique. Existing intergovernmental bodies such as COAG are not celebrated for their openness or transparency. As legal scholar Paul Kildea has lamented, COAG’s tendency to secrecy has made it difficult for parliaments to scrutinise the actions taken by its first ministers.
Secondly, the establishment of the national cabinet has not altered the constitutional realities of intergovernmental co-operation. The first ministers have collectively agreed to a timetable for re-opening the country, but the actual implementation of re-opening remains within the authority of the separate governments.
This has come to a peak recently with the Morrison government seeking to exert great pressure on Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews to announce a roadmap out of his state’s strict lockdown. He has announced he will do so this weekend.
Nor will the national cabinet magically solve the familiar tensions between first ministers. They grow frustrated with one another and their interests diverge, as has been clearly shown in the fracturing relationship between Morrison and Andrews as the “blame game” over the state’s second COVID spike has played out.
Thirdly, the notion that the first ministers’ decision to abide by cabinet conventions improves intergovernmental negotiations is also overstated. The usual mechanism available to a prime minister to punish those who violate these conventions – removing them from their position – does not apply. The prime minister cannot fire a premier or a chief minister.
Fourthly, as legal academic Cheryl Saunders notes, the national cabinet leaves completely unaddressed the longstanding exclusion of (real) cabinets and parliaments in the processes of intergovernmental relations.
Federal-state co-operation in a post-pandemic world
The high levels of collaboration displayed by Australia’s first ministers are more likely explained by the urgency of responding to the pandemic rather than by institutional features of the national cabinet.
The pernicious nature of the virus has created strong pressure for different levels of government to work together. Although the national cabinet is the forum through which this co-operation has occurred, it should not be regarded as the fundamental reason why governments have been more co-operative than usual. In fact, it is not obvious the policy response to the pandemic would have been significantly different had intergovernmental co-ordination occurred through COAG rather than the national cabinet.
When the COVID crisis is over, the political environment will likely revert to some version of its pre-pandemic state. Parliaments will resume as normal, it will once again be politically safe for opposition leaders to criticise governments, and the public will probably be less deferential towards its leaders. First ministers will have to contend with a decision-making environment that is (fortunately) less deadly but more politically challenging.
Right now, they can act more decisively, and more co-operatively, because the usual mechanisms of accountability have been blunted.
The lingering puzzle of national cabinet is why the premiers have agreed to this arrangement.
The national cabinet has been much more important politically and symbolically for the prime minister than for the premiers. It has enabled the prime minister to (selectively) assert his political relevance at a time when many of the most important decisions and actions that affect citizens during the pandemic fall constitutionally to the states and territories. What the premiers and chief ministers ultimately gain from this particular arrangement is less clear.
None of this is to take away from the successes of the national cabinet. Rather, the key point is that the effectiveness of the forum is a function of the exceptional context we’re in rather than its novel institutional design.
Scott Morrison has further ramped up his pressure on states to relax border restrictions by declaring “there will be a Commonwealth definition of a hotspot – come rain, hail or shine”.
The Prime Minister said he hoped such a definition was one agreed to by the national cabinet, which meets next Friday.
“But at the very least, there will be a Commonwealth one. And if there are any differences to that – well, people can explain them.”
A week ago the national cabinet asked its health advisers to come up with a definition. Borders remain the province of states and territories and Morrison is immensely frustrated that states with few or no cases continue to resist his pleas to open.
He told a rural forum on Friday state borders “are putting enormous stress and strain on Australians, especially those in regional and border communities, including by limiting access to essential health care, keeping people from their work, restricting farmers’ accesses to their property and their markets.
“I’ve had hundreds of letters and emails from cross-border communities over the recent weeks and months, as have my colleagues,” he said.
He seized on the case of a woman from Ballina in northern NSW who lost an unborn twin after waiting for a plane to travel to Sydney following difficulties accessing Queensland for treatment in Brisbane.
Describing the story as “heartbreaking”, he said: “There needs to be an explanation as to how these hard border arrangements can lead to people not getting access to this care, as it seems to be the case here”.
Accounts of the woman’s case differed.
The CEO of Northern NSW Local Health District, Wayne Jones, said in a statement that while the preferred place for the birth was in Brisbane, under the border restrictions the woman and her partner would have had to quarantine in a government hotel for 14 days at their expense.
“Following discussion with Royal Prince Alfred specialists in Sydney, the woman travelled to Sydney for the procedure where she would not be required to quarantine,” he said.
But a Queensland health spokesperson said a person from a hotspot could enter Queensland for emergency care without an exemption where that care could not be provided in the hotspot. Queensland Health had not received a formal transfer request for the woman, although a Brisbane hospital was able to accept her.
The spokesperson said Queensland Health also did not receive any exemption requests in relation to the case. “The final decision to transfer this case was made by the patient’s treating clinicians in NSW.”
Morrison said the only areas of “significant disagreement” in the national cabinet during the pandemic had been over school closures and borders.
He said the shutting of borders early in the pandemic had not been the most pressing issue. “In hindsight, I think back then we should have addressed the principles around how those borders were being handled at that time. If I had my time over then I think we would have spent more time on that,” he said.
Referring to the woman’s case, he said: “It’s unthinkable …. to know that this family has had to be dealing with border permits at a time when … the only thing that mattered was the health of their child.”
“I hope I can get some better arrangements and [states will] hear my criticisms … on behalf of Australians we’ve got to try and get this worked out.”
Morrison said “the idea that we’re going to live with domestic borders until there’s a vaccine is a recipe for economic ruin. That is not the plan.
“The plan is to ensure testing, tracing and outbreak containment, strong quarantine, COVID safe behaviours in the workplace, in the home, at the footy club, at the ground, in this conference. That is how you live with the virus and keep people in jobs. Borders don’t do that.”
The national cabinet has been extraordinarily successful at addressing the immediate coronavirus health threat. It acted swiftly and decisively to address a common threat that did not respect state and territory borders. It was guided by expert advice and evidence. It did this without the usual blame games. Financial considerations played second fiddle to public health imperatives.
Even so, there have been fractures in the national approach. This was seen most obviously in fights over border closures and school reopenings, resulting in different states going their own way.
COAG, which was founded by the Keating governmentin 1992 has, over time, gained a less proactive reputation. When Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced it would be scrapped, he described it as a place where “good ideas went to die”.
However, the issues COAG has dealt with are inherently more divisive than those the national cabinet has so far faced, not least because they have been around for longer and because finances are involved. Classic examples are the GST rate and allocation to the states, and hospital funding.
How the national cabinet, which has functioned to date rather like a subcommittee of the regular federal cabinet, will operate in the future to tackle such complex and long-standing issues is unclear. We currently only have an outline.
How will the national cabinet work?
There will be subcommittees in select key areas: rural and regional, skills, energy, housing, transport and infrastructure, population and migration, and health.
Closing the Gap of Indigenous disadvantage, and reducing violence against women will continue as priorities.
Already several concerns emerge. There is no reference to social welfare, urbanisation or climate change, all of which have substantial impacts on health.
…the important role of health, in terms of having a healthy workforce and a healthy community to support a strong economy.
This could mean, finally, issues like preventive health and obesity will become national priorities.
Yet the promised prominent role of the Council on Federal Financial Relations (the federal and state treasurers) in the new structure means there is a risk that issues considered by national cabinet will be judged simply on the funding required, rather than on community needs and benefits delivered.
Then there’s the issue of transparency around decision-making. There are concerns Morrison will seek to have the same rules about confidentiality apply to the workings and documents of national cabinet as apply to the federal cabinet.
What will be on the agenda?
While Morrison says the national cabinet’s “singular agenda” is to create jobs, it is not the only urgent issue.
A new approach and new momentum offer the exciting possibility of whole-of-government approaches to the “wicked problems” that beset Australia, such as socio-economic inequality, drought and bushfires, ageing and suicide.
Even on a smaller scale, there are benefits to a broader approach to problems. Examples include: boosting the aged care workforce as part of a job stimulus package that would particularly benefit women; tackling public dental health wait times to improve productivity; improved Indigenous housing to Close the Gap in education and health; and providing Indigenous employment.
Changes are already under way
The power base that underpins the national cabinet is about to shift, with consequences for its efficient operation.
In the battle against the coronavirus pandemic, the states and territories held most of the relevant constitutional powers. That will not be the case as the focus shifts to the needs of the nation in the years ahead.
And the commonwealth will always wield power in these settings because it controls the funding.
At a time when there is an urgent need to reform programs and funding to deliver better health and health-care outcomes, the national cabinet offers possibilities, challenges and risks.
In large part, the future and value of the national cabinet in post-pandemic times will depend on the level of commitment the prime minister and his cabinet are willing to make to this new structure and to working together in good faith with Australia’s governments.
Scott Morrison has won support for a major restructure of federal-state architecture which scraps the Council of Australian Governments, enshrines the “national cabinet” permanently, and pares down a plethora of ancillary ministerial bodies.
The Prime Minister is shaping the ongoing national cabinet around his government’s central priority of jobs, and strengthening the government’s grip on Commonwealth-state relations.
“The national cabinet will be driven by a singular agenda, and that is to create jobs,” Morrison said on Friday.
This would be its “laser-like” mission as the country came out of the COVID crisis and went into the years ahead. The national cabinet would “drive the reform process” between federal and state governments “to drive jobs.”
It would oversee ministerial cabinet subcommittees in key areas, including rural and regional, skills, energy, housing, transport and infrastructure, population and migration, transportation and “health, in terms of having a healthy workforce and a healthy community to support a strong economy”.
The changes, agreed at Friday’s national cabinet meeting, follow the success of that body since it was set up to deal with the pandemic.
“By any measure, national cabinet has proven to be a much more effective body for taking decisions in the national interest than the COAG structure,” Morrison said.
Although like COAG the national cabinet includes federal and state leaders, it has not been hampered by so much bureaucracy. Whether what’s regarded as excessive bureaucracy can be prevented from accumulating when there’s not a crisis remains to be seen.
Nor is it clear whether partisan federal-state politicking, which has been missing at national cabinet despite some sharp disagreements, will get back to previous levels in normal times.
The national cabinet is bound by cabinet confidentiality, which likely will work to the federal government’s advantage.
It will continue to meet regularly – fortnightly at the moment and later monthly – and “initial reform areas” will be agreed by it.
Mostly it won’t meet in person but by “telepresence”. Morrison said the virtual meetings during the pandemic had worked incredibly well. He said there would be two face-to-face meetings a year.
It will draw on a wider range of experts than just public servants.
Federal and state treasurers, who already meet regularly, will become a council of federal financial relations (CFFR). They will take responsibility for all funding agreements including national partnership agreements, and look to consolidating some of them.
The reshaped model cuts down the access of local government, the representative of which has been a permanent participant in COAG.
In the new system, once a year the national cabinet, the CFFR and the Australian Local Government Association will meet in person as the national federation reform council. This will discuss federation reform and “priority national federation issues such as Closing the Gap and women’s safety.”
Closing the Gap and women’s safety will also be on the agenda of national cabinet throughout the year.
Some 20 ministerial councils, which currently range from the regional ministerial forum to the ministerial forum on vehicle emissions, are to be consolidated. Another nine ministerial regulatory councils, presently ranging from energy to consumer affairs, are also to be reduced in number and streamlined; they are to focus on areas of key responsibilities.
Morrison said: “It’s 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 need to talk to each other, share ideas, but the congestion-busting process we’re engaged on here is simplifying that. They come together to solve problems, deal with issues and move on. They should talk to each other because they find value in it, not because of the requirements of some sort of bureaucratic process”.
Crises pose particular challenges for democratic leaders. They are expected to make critical decisions in times of uncertainty and rapidly develop effective plans to lead us out of the crisis. Normally, we are more interested in constraining our leaders through the checks and balances of accountability. But in times of crisis, we look to our leaders to lead. Finding the right balance between accountability and rapid decision-making remains a challenge during an era of reduced trust in political leaders.
In Australia, the establishment of the national cabinet has undertaken this crisis leadership role.
The national cabinet comprises the prime minister and all state and territory premiers and chief ministers. Basically, it is COAG by another name.
Though called a cabinet, the national cabinet is technically an intergovernmental forum. The conventions and rules of cabinet, such as cabinet solidarity and the secrecy provisions, do not apply to the national cabinet.
Its power is that which the leaders of all Australian jurisdictions bring to negotiate on behalf of their people, and to implement the decisions reached. This model is called executive federalism.
Advantages of executive federalism in a time of crisis
In a crisis, decision-making automatically shifts upwards with the expectation that leaders will work together to find a way through the crisis. The National Cabinet meets these expectations in several ways.
Timeliness and risk
Response time is critical, and with the national cabinet meeting multiple times a week, issues can be addressed as they emerge. Risk is reduced by bringing together technical and political experts.
The national cabinet is the mechanism to bring together information and intelligence sharing, and the capacity to pool and test ideas before locking in coordination and jurisdictional capacity.
Because of the frequency of meetings, decisions are expected and made. The consideration of different jurisdictional viewpoints and expertise puts rigour and contestability into the decision-making and strengthens the outcome.
Clarity and coherence
In a time of national crisis, agreement on a plan of action and then rapid and effective implementation is crucial. The national cabinet brings that focus. By putting aside their “politics as usual” squabbles the leaders demonstrate their desire for agreement and unity and communicate that firmness of purpose to the community at large.
Though the search for unity can be overborne by local circumstances. Some states moved earlier to introduce restrictions and shutdowns outside of the national cabinet. Though criticised for breaking ranks, the premiers were reacting to the different circumstances and anxiety within their jurisdiction. They decided to trade off the perception of a loss of unity against the need to create local responses for local circumstances.
The national cabinet helps reconcile the dual allegiances citizens have to the national government and their state or territory government. People are looking for a coherent national approach through the crisis, but they do not want to see their individual jurisdiction to be disadvantaged compared to the rest of the country. At the national cabinet, the smaller states have equal representation, whereas in parliament their representation is proportionate to their population size.
Is it anti-democratic?
Executive federalism forums such as the national cabinet can be criticised for being undemocratic and unaccountable, with the role of the parliament marginalised. However, these forums are undertaking different roles. The national cabinet deals with negotiation and compromise between states, which recognise difference and diversity. The parliament is about majority will.
The connection has not been lost with parliament, which is suspended not pro-rogued, and will be brought back to pass legislation from decisions made by the national cabinet.
Once the COVID-19 crisis has passed, the full democratic accountability processes can scrutinise the decisions taken. This includes parliamentary committee investigations and royal commissions. The checks and balances of the democratic constraints on our leaders will reassert themselves.