The new kid on the block among political institutions is the national cabinet, which might be governing us for the next six months or more. The term is a misnomer, as it is not actually a cabinet but more like a special purpose Council of Australian Governments (COAG) meeting - what some have called a rolling COAG - known previously as the Premiers Conference. It is very different from the Advisory War Council, the war cabinet formed during World War II, which was a cross-party cabinet made up of members drawn from the Federal Parliament, government and opposition. The differences are not just semantics - they have practical consequences.
A cabinet is the key institution of executive government, and each federal, state and territory government has one. It is composed of a government's most senior ministers. The members of a cabinet exercise collective responsibility for the workings of government, on top of the individual responsibility that each minister has for their own departments and policy areas. They are collectively responsible to the Parliament and for public service departments. The cabinet brings it all together at the apex of government.
The cabinet operates under strict rules of solidarity and privacy/secrecy. Solidarity means that once a decision has been taken, each member has to take public responsibility for the collective view. Secrecy means that cabinet documents are protected in order to encourage frank discussion within cabinet, and frank advice to it. Access to the documents of the national cabinet will, presumably, if the usual rules apply, be restricted for the next 20 years.
Importantly, the members of cabinet are chosen by the governing party, by the leader in the case of the Liberals and by a party vote in the case of Labor. The leader allocates portfolios. Only rarely are non-party members invited to be members of cabinet. To state the obvious, cabinet members are usually members of the same party. While there can be enormous personality and policy rifts within any normal cabinet, they are more likely to be unified because of common party allegiance. In practical terms, the prime minister or premier controls the membership and agenda of the cabinet, and determines the internal processes by which outcomes are resolved.
The nine separate federal, state and territory cabinet meetings will all continue to operate alongside the national cabinet, governing their own jurisdictions. This means that the meetings of the national cabinet, for those involved, are an additional workload on top of the normal business of government. Those involved have a lot on their plate, and may quickly become exhausted.
The differences between the national cabinet and the other cabinets we are used to are important, and help to explain the obvious tensions within the new body. Prime Minister Scott Morrison has noted that the national cabinet includes five Labor leaders (Victoria, Queensland, Western Australia, the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory) and four Liberal leaders (the Commonwealth, NSW, South Australia and Tasmania). It is genuinely bipartisan.
These party differences can be managed by strong and consultative leadership as they are in any intergovernmental council or committee like COAG, but they are potentially an added source of tension. There are also personality clashes, reportedly between Morrison and Dan Andrews, the Victorian Premier - but these are probably no more serious than those within any cabinet.
Differences also stem from what each leader brings to the table. State differences are far greater than in any federal cabinet, although federal cabinets also represent state interests. Each leader also has their own health chiefs and other experts to call upon. Each is also temperamentally used to chairing their own cabinet and being the lord of all they survey.
Cabinet solidarity is also much weaker than usual in the national cabinet because, even if there is an unwritten rule, its members are not bound in any formal way. This means you get more breakouts, as happened in the case of the NSW and Victorian premiers with regards to school openings and major lockdowns.
The greatest potential weakness of a new intergovernmental body like the national cabinet is a lack of accountability, a frequent weakness of what is known as executive federalism. It is an intergovernmental body, rather than an interparliamentary body, a point the Prime Minister made when rejecting the suggestion that the leader of the federal opposition, Anthony Albanese, should be added to the membership.
The new kid on the block means a new link in the chain of political accountability, which is already stretched. Each leader in the national cabinet must report first to his or her own cabinet, then to their own parliament, to whom they are ultimately responsible. Only then can their parliaments call them to account, led by the official opposition. The sittings of parliaments may be truncated and usual business, such as the annual budget, may be delayed. Already the federal budget has been delayed from May until October
Ultimately, the national cabinet members will each be called to account by their citizens through elections, but that will only occur over some time. Even then campaigning may be curtailed. The ACT is the first cab off the rank in October.
Eventually the operation of the national cabinet will receive deeper analysis. Relations between our political leaders may take a long time to return to normal. The consequences will be mixed. Innovative use of new technology for meetings may continue. Greater familiarity among leaders within federalism may oil the wheels of federal-state relations.
In the meantime, media scrutiny of the national cabinet should continue to be intense - because public accountability must be maintained. As it stands, power has been centralised in a single untested institution.
- John Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University.
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