CPDS Home Contact Professionalism: Chronological Summary

Email sent 5/1/08

Mr Dennis Atkins
Courier Mail

'One big Labor party': Great Fun but there will be a Hangover

Might I respectfully suggest that the new approach to federal / state relationships through COAG should probably be a cause of public concern.

My interpretation of your article: COAG meeting recently was the first with all ALP governments. Seven working groups were established (on health and aging; productivity; climate change and water; infrastructure; business regulation; housing and indigenous reform). The productivity group (for example) will focus on: better vocational education; digital tools at schools; trade training centres at schools; promoting Asian languages; early childhood education; national curriculum; and increasing year 12 retention rates. There are also proposals for changing special purpose Commonwealth funding for states - perhaps rebranding them as 'partnership agreements', which will have incentives for states if specified outcomes are met. Rudd wants funding based on outcomes and outputs that are identifiable and quantifiable. State officials and governments are understood to be excited about the new approach (Atkins D., 'One big Labor party', Courier Mail, 22-23/12/07).

The problem is that the proposed process, despite the enthusiasm of those involved, is more likely to produce ideologically appealing reform options than any that would be practically effective.

Firstly, it seems that direction to COAG working groups is mainly to be given politically.

COAG will in future meet 4 times annually, and will involve working groups of ministers. In the past working groups have involved public officials (Phillips M., and Breusch J., 'Minister to drive COAG reforms', Financial Review, 21-27/12/07).

Secondly, though it is unlikely that COAG will be entirely politically-driven because of the complexity of the issues involved, it is not clear where more-than-ideologically-appealing reform options are likely to come from, because:

  • state administrations are generally perceived to be anything but sparkling successes. They seem to suffer structural weaknesses similar to those outlined (in relation to the case of Queensland in): Structural Incompetence and SE Queensland's Water Crisis; Intended Submission to Health System Royal Commission; Failure in Queensland's Electricity Distribution Network etc. Such dysfunctions are by no means confined to Queensland. To restore competency, reforms similar to those it needs are likely to be essential -see Improving Public Sector Performance in Queensland;
  • the agenda for which the federal government gained a mandate (and which seems foundational to COAG's new agenda) was populist and insubstantial - see Populism Trumps Electoral Victory;
  • the federal Public Service seems just as badly politicised (ie dominated by 'yes men' and lacking in real professional competencies) as state governments - because it was subjected to a very similar politically-driven 'reform' process in recent years (see Decay of Australian Public Administration);
  • while reform of federal / state financial relationships are critical to enabling state governments to become effective, the proposed 'partnership agreement' option to replace special purpose funding suffers essentially the same defects. It would continue to be impossible for states to take real responsibility for their nominal functions, or the necessary initiatives (see Federalism: Why 'Control Freaks' Don't Achieve Real Results). An emphasis on outcomes and outputs that were identifiable and quantifiable characterised the machinery of government established in Queensland by the Goss Government. This resulted in such tight enforcement of central government agendas that those with specialised / local knowledge could not take the initiatives needed to prevent the failures mentioned above (in electricity, hospitals and water supplies). There seems to be no recognition that a fundamental feature of the legitimate functions governments undertake is that they are difficult to identify and quantify and thus require decentralised initiative and professional judgment (see Governing is not Just Running a Large Business). The latter refers to the fact that attempts were apparently made several years ago to identify and quantify federal government outputs in accordance with 'new public management' theory - but abandoned as impractical in 2002;
  • the focus of the 'productivity' group (the only example quoted in the above article) strongly suggests that politically idealised, rather than realistic, outcomes are most likely. Improving productivity is important, but this is more likely to require an emphasis on: economic flexibility / change; responsiveness to market and technological change; entrepreneurship; investment; innovation; and well developed industry clusters. The 'productivity' groups' focus seems to be elsewhere.

The politicised machinery of state and federal governments won't magically gain the ability to come up with the concrete reform proposals just because competition between competing political agendas has been eliminated. The COAG meeting in June 2005, which focussed on pressing problems in health systems and infrastructure, was like that of December 2007 in that it did nothing except establish committees because there were no concrete proposals about what to do (see Taylor L., 'Love is in the air, not crisis, in Canberra', Financial Review, 4-5/6/05). Doing more than this requires much stronger professional support to governments (both externally and internally) than they currently have available.


John Craig