Australia’s third branch of government – local councils – have been removed from the national discussion table as the new National Cabinet take charge under the cover of emergency measures.
Between trade wars, international uprisings, and the federal government quietly announcing a $721 million robodebt refund scheme, the death of COAG (Council of Australian Governments) may appear small fry in comparison to the week’s events.
COAG has been scrapped by the coalition and replaced with a National Cabinet comprised of Prime Minister Scott Morrison, state premiers and territory chief ministers. Notably missing from the new national taskforce is a voice representing local government, previously represented in COAG by the Australian Local Government Association (ALGA.)
What was COAG?
Originally established in 1992, the Council of Australian Governments met twice a year with local, state and federal government representatives to discuss matters of ‘national significance.’ Representing grassroots matters of behalf of local councils was the Australian Local Government Association, who would provide a direct link to leaders, effectively lobbying for national change with a local perspective.
The ALGA represented 537 councils and 6,500 elected members during COAG meetings on issues ranging from upgrading local roads to waste collection, hospital funding, domestic violence prevention, education and public transport.
Limited by agendas and bureaucracy, the council was not without controversy, with Prime Minister Scott Morrison stating previously that COAG was where “good ideas went to die.”
Mayor for the Inner West Council, and Councillor for Balmain, Darcy Byrne, described COAG as a “talkfest,” adding that “National Cabinet has been an important improvement… Local Government having a voice is more a function of effective advocacy.”
Local Government, National Cabinet
Formed during the height of the COVID-19 crisis in March, and currently meeting fortnightly until the pandemic abates, the National Cabinet has been touted as a means to fast-track action between state and federal government. Working under the same rules as Federal Cabinet, which include provisions for strict confidentiality and collective responsibility, the secretive nature of the National Cabinet has been as a solution to “streamline all of those endless meetings that go on,” according to the Prime Minister, speaking to the press last week. “It’s important that Ministers at state and federal level talk to each other, but they don’t have to do it in such a bureaucratic form… they come to each other to solve problems, deal with issues and move on,” he said.
Taskforces set up by COAG, including those focussing on women’s health, preventing domestic violence and a dedicated Indigenous affairs taskforce will continue, but without input from the Australian Local Government Association, potentially hampering the inclusion of local voices on local matters.
The ALGA will be invited to meet with National Cabinet alongside state and federal treasurers once a year as part of the National Reform Council, but for president of the ALGA David O’Loughlin, once a year is not enough. In a tweet Mr O’Loughlin said that the relegation of local government to “1 ticket to a COAG anniversary party is disgraceful to the nation’s economic and social recovery.”
After the latest federal announcement laid out a further path to recovery, including the voice of local governments whose residents will bear the brunt are front-of-mind for Inner West Councillor for Stanmore, Pauline Lockie. “No level of government is closer to the community than local government; we know how the COVID-19 crisis has impacted our local residents and businesses, and what measures are needed to help our communities recover,” she said.
“The death of COAG means local government will no longer be represented within Australia’s key inter-governmental decision-making body, and that’s a huge loss,” she continued. “Shutting local government out of the National Cabinet means key opportunities for recovery will be missed.”