Ministerial Councils are an important part of the Council of Australian Governments’ (COAG) reform structure. Their role is to develop proposals for reform to be considered by COAG and to oversee the implementation of reforms agreed to by COAG. While COAG is comprised of the Prime Minister, the Premiers and Chief Ministers of each state and territory and the President of the Australian Local Government Association, Ministerial Councils are composed of the Commonwealth, state and territory ministers responsible for a particular area of reform. They may also include ministers from New Zealand when an issue under consideration affects that country. Papua New Guinea and Norfolk Island may also have observer status where appropriate.
Concerns expressed at the rate of implementation of COAG reforms resulted in COAG, at its July 2009 meeting, setting up a review of Ministerial Councils
to be conducted by Dr Allan Hawke. At a round table discussion
by four former state Premiers, Steve Bracks, former Premier of Victoria, expressed the view that reforms agreed to by the federal, state and territory leaders often met obstacles when raised at the ministerial councils level. He felt the initial good intentions about reform as agreed upon by the leaders were ‘whittled down’ at the council level. However, Dr Carmen Lawrence, former Premier of Western Australia and Keating Government minister, urged caution against doing away with the involvement of ministers. She felt the view that ministers only make things complicated and that it was best not to involve the community too much because they were more conservative than the drivers of reform, was ‘a bit dangerous in a democracy, to say the least’.
Hawke’s report, which has not been made public, was discussed by COAG at its April 2010 meeting
. It agreed to reforms that would see the number of Ministerial Councils reduced from over 40 to about 11 or fewer by March 2011. These councils would oversee ‘key areas of ongoing importance to both the Commonwealth and the States, including health, education and training, community services, infrastructure, police and emergency services, and financial relations’. It also agreed to set up Select Councils of Ministers when it required advice on particular subjects by a certain time.
At COAG’s February 2011 meeting, the first under Prime Minister Julia Gillard, it reaffirmed the need for reform of the ministerial council structure noting that: ‘These changes will see a fundamental shift towards a council system focussed on strategic national priorities and new ways for COAG and its councils to identify and address issues of national significance.’ It agreed
to establish 23 Ministerial Councils which would all come into operation by 30 June 2011. A Transition Working Group made up of officials from the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and the Premiers’ and Chief Ministers’ departments was given responsibility for implementing the new system. COAG saw the new system as enabling it to ‘focus on reforms of national critical importance’ with greater responsiveness and agility. The new system would continue its policy oversight of National Agreements and National Partnership Agreements; it would be more focussed on the implementation of those agreements, and result in a closer relationship between COAG and the Ministerial Councils.The structure of the more effective ministerial council system
The Standing Councils
will cover the following areas: health; community, housing and disability services; school education and early childhood; tertiary education, skills and employment; transport and infrastructure; police and emergency management; law and justice; federal financial relations; energy and resources; environment and water; regional Australia; and primary industries.
They will focus on a small number (five to seven) of issues of national significance and present proposals to COAG for its endorsement. Each council will also produce an annual report for COAG which will include an overview of the council’s decisions.
The Select Councils
will be established when the Prime Minister, Premiers and Chief Ministers decide there is an issue of sufficient national importance as to warrant Ministers’ direct action. In the first instance Select Councils will be set up in the areas of: homelessness; workplace relations; climate change; women’s issues; and immigration and settlement. These will be in addition to the one already established on gambling reform.
In addition to the standing and select councils a small number of Ministerial Legislative and Governance Fora
will be set up to manage ongoing legislative and governance functions that are not covered by the standing councils. The Fora will also oversight significant collective responsibilities for ministers where they are set out in relevant legislation, intergovernmental agreements and treaties that are outside the scope of Standing Councils.
The Fora will cover: food regulation; gene technology; corporations; consumer affairs; and the Murray-Darling Basin.
It is also understood that outside these formal arrangements, ministers may meet from time to time on a private and informal basis with colleagues from other jurisdictions to discuss matters of common interest and to facilitate collaboration and information sharing.(Image of Ministerial Council of Police and Emergency Management meeting sourced from http://www.ema.gov.au/)