National Cabinet needs a refresh to stay viable

28 April 2023

Australia’s National Cabinet played a vital role in seeing Australia through the worst of the COVID pandemic, but has it got legs to last the distance into the future?

That’s the question posed by CQUniversity’s Law Lecturer and political commentator Jacob Deem who said Australians have a “well-honed skepticism of bureaucratic talk fests” with good reason and said while the current National Cabinet has served the nation well in the past three years it’s time to rethink the model.

“The transition from COAG to the National Cabinet was so swift, there was no opportunity to develop a truly workable, sustainable model. We need a body suited to meet the substantial challenges the nation faces into the future,” Dr Deem said.

The establishment of the National Cabinet in March 2020, which brought together the prime minister, state premiers and territory chief ministers to coordinate the national response to the COVID pandemic, really showcased how credible our political leaders are in times of crisis.

“Compared to other intergovernmental forums, the National Cabinet was designed to be nimble, decisive and not weighed down by bureaucracy,” Dr Deem explained.

“However, three years on, and with the pressing nature of the pandemic easing, it’s time to rethink the National Cabinet.

“With the leaders gathering recently in Canberra, a central question looming over the meeting is whether the group is still fit for purpose.”

A recent review on National Cabinet’s performance identified how it can be improved in the future and Dr Deem believes its timely that Cabinet addresses these recommendations.

The report suggested while the current model for National Cabinet worked well at the height of the pandemic, the same approach is not ideal today.

Since the abolition of the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) in 2020, National Cabinet has served as the primary forum for Australia’s leaders to meet and consider important issues facing the country.

But Dr Deem said National Cabinet’s emphasis on informality, which came to be valued by political leaders during the pandemic, is not a sound basis on which to deal with the complex challenges facing the nation.

“While avoiding the mire of bureaucracy might often be a good thing, we also need to develop a set of principles or touchstones to guide and monitor the success of the National Cabinet,” he explained.

“We also need greater selectivity and justification of the projects the cabinet focuses on, and a reasonable balance between stability, flexibility and priorities.”

Dr Deem said more transparency is also a key concern.

“In its current form, the National Cabinet is still shrouded in secrecy,” he said.

Former Prime Minister Scott Morrison argued it was protected by cabinet confidentiality, which prevented public disclosure of discussions and documents considered by the body.

This argument was rejected by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal in 2021. Federal Court Justice Richard White held that simply naming the institution a “cabinet” did not automatically grant it confidentiality.

Even after that decision, both the Morrison and Albanese governments have refused Freedom of Information requests for National Cabinet documents.

“As a federation, Australia already struggles with accountability, as it can be easy for governments to shift blame to one another," he added.

“Adding in a policy of blanket secrecy about National Cabinet further constrains our ability to hold governments accountable and undermines public trust.”

Dr Deem believes the key is to strike a balance between encouraging frank discussions between leaders and promoting transparency.

“A good starting point would be to return to the partial Freedom of Information exemption that operated under COAG,” he said.

Dr Deem said Australia is at its best when it operates as a true federation.

The response to the pandemic was a good example. If the National Cabinet is to succeed into the future, its participants must be committed to the aims of federalism," he said.

“Any reform of National Cabinet should ensure it is a truly federal and balanced body. An intergovernmental agreement could formalise the National Cabinet’s governance arrangements and clarify its role and function. It could also add innovations, such as a joint Commonwealth-state secretariat.

“The National Cabinet, like COAG before it, is currently a top-heavy body. This will need to change.”

Dr Deem said the National Cabinet now has an opportunity to learn from the deficits of COAG and create a lasting model of federal cooperation and achievement – one that is more structured, transparent and has a true federal-state balance.

Dr Deem wrote on this topic with Adjunct Principal Research Fellow Jennifer Menzies, Griffith University, for The Conversation: With the COVID crisis easing, is the National Cabinet still fit for purpose? .