New ANZSOG Case explores future of Australia’s National Cabinet

Image of parliament house in Canberra, ACT
  • Published Date: 13 October 2021

Australia’s National Cabinet has gone from an emergency measure to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 to a permanent feature of governance, replacing the longstanding Council of Australian Governments (COAG) as a framework for Federal/State cooperation.

A new case in ANZSOG’s John L. Alford Case Library outlines the history of the National Cabinet, from its almost instant establishment as a response to COVID, through the inevitable conflicts that emerged, and its formal establishment as Australia’s peak intergovernmental forum.

The National Cabinet and COVID-19: a new future for federal relations? by ANZSOG’s Marinella Padula, explores the potential for National Cabinet to solve more complex social and environmental issues and some of the transparency and accountability issues that have emerged.

COAG was established in 1992 by then Prime Minister Paul Keating to provide a forum for state and federal leaders to meet to address legislative inconsistencies and complex policy challenges. Beginning with a focus on economic reform, its remit expanded to any issue of national significance. Decisions were reached by consensus or majority vote and ratified (if necessary) with intergovernmental agreements, supported by a network of meetings of public servants from across jurisdictions.

After a range of successful reforms in the 1990s and 2000s, by 2020 there was a feeling amongst leaders that COAG was failing to deliver and had become, in the words of former NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell “a parking lot for tough decisions”. It was also seen by the States as too Commonwealth-dominated, with the Federal Government using its financial dominance to get its way.

National Cabinet began as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, allowing for co-ordination between State and Federal responses, while respecting the rights of States to be flexible in tailoring responses to local conditions.

While National Cabinet has now formally replaced COAG, there are still many questions about how it will work in practice, and concerns about its lack of accountability, with its formal status as a subcommittee of Federal Cabinet making it exempt from many freedom of information provisions.

The case explores a range of views about the future of the National Cabinet and whether it will have any more success than its predecessor in addressing major long-term issues such as climate change economic reform and inequality. While the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the nature of Federal/State relations, it is still not quite clear what shape that change will take.

The full case can be found in ANZSOG’s John L. Alford Case Library. The Library contains almost 300 examples of public policy challenges from Australia and Aotearoa-New Zealand, available for free and designed to be used in the development of public managers.