Search This Blog

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

"National Cabinet" not Cabinet as we have known it

Explainer: what is the national cabinet and is it democratic?

AAP/Mike Bowers
Jennifer Menzies, Griffith University
Crises pose particular challenges for democratic leaders. They are expected to make critical decisions in times of uncertainty and rapidly develop effective plans to lead us out of the crisis. Normally, we are more interested in constraining our leaders through the checks and balances of accountability. But in times of crisis, we look to our leaders to lead. Finding the right balance between accountability and rapid decision-making remains a challenge during an era of reduced trust in political leaders.
In Australia, the establishment of the national cabinet has undertaken this crisis leadership role.
The national cabinet comprises the prime minister and all state and territory premiers and chief ministers. Basically, it is COAG by another name.

Read more: 'Where no counsel is, the people fall': why parliaments should keep functioning during the coronavirus crisis

Though called a cabinet, the national cabinet is technically an intergovernmental forum. The conventions and rules of cabinet, such as cabinet solidarity and the secrecy provisions, do not apply to the national cabinet.
Its power is that which the leaders of all Australian jurisdictions bring to negotiate on behalf of their people, and to implement the decisions reached. This model is called executive federalism.

Advantages of executive federalism in a time of crisis

In a crisis, decision-making automatically shifts upwards with the expectation that leaders will work together to find a way through the crisis. The National Cabinet meets these expectations in several ways.

Timeliness and risk
Response time is critical, and with the national cabinet meeting multiple times a week, issues can be addressed as they emerge. Risk is reduced by bringing together technical and political experts.
The national cabinet is supported by the chief medical officers, who meet as the Australian Health Protection and Principles Committee (AHPPC). They pull together the modelling, research and data that form the basis of decisions made by the national cabinet.

Read more: View from The Hill: A contest of credible views should be seen as useful in a national crisis

The national cabinet is the mechanism to bring together information and intelligence sharing, and the capacity to pool and test ideas before locking in coordination and jurisdictional capacity.
Because of the frequency of meetings, decisions are expected and made. The consideration of different jurisdictional viewpoints and expertise puts rigour and contestability into the decision-making and strengthens the outcome.

Clarity and coherence
In a time of national crisis, agreement on a plan of action and then rapid and effective implementation is crucial. The national cabinet brings that focus. By putting aside their “politics as usual” squabbles the leaders demonstrate their desire for agreement and unity and communicate that firmness of purpose to the community at large.

Though the search for unity can be overborne by local circumstances. Some states moved earlier to introduce restrictions and shutdowns outside of the national cabinet. Though criticised for breaking ranks, the premiers were reacting to the different circumstances and anxiety within their jurisdiction. They decided to trade off the perception of a loss of unity against the need to create local responses for local circumstances.

Dual democracy
The national cabinet helps reconcile the dual allegiances citizens have to the national government and their state or territory government. People are looking for a coherent national approach through the crisis, but they do not want to see their individual jurisdiction to be disadvantaged compared to the rest of the country. At the national cabinet, the smaller states have equal representation, whereas in parliament their representation is proportionate to their population size.

Is it anti-democratic?
Executive federalism forums such as the national cabinet can be criticised for being undemocratic and unaccountable, with the role of the parliament marginalised. However, these forums are undertaking different roles. The national cabinet deals with negotiation and compromise between states, which recognise difference and diversity. The parliament is about majority will.
The connection has not been lost with parliament, which is suspended not pro-rogued, and will be brought back to pass legislation from decisions made by the national cabinet.

Once the COVID-19 crisis has passed, the full democratic accountability processes can scrutinise the decisions taken. This includes parliamentary committee investigations and royal commissions. The checks and balances of the democratic constraints on our leaders will reassert themselves.The Conversation

Jennifer Menzies, Principal Research Fellow, Policy Innovation Hub, Griffith University
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Thursday, April 09, 2020

Parliament out till August, scrutiny of response to pandemic in the hands of senate committee

At the truncated sitting of the Senate yesterday, the Senate:
debated  in the course of a ministerial statement about the Coronavirus pandemic, whether Parliament would adjourn normal sittings until August, subject to recall by the presiding officers in the event of urgent necessity. And adjourned on that basis; 

approved a motion moved by ALP Senator Katy Gallagher to establish a Senate committee to oversight the Government's response to the COVID-19 pandemic and any related matters, and to report on or before 30 June 2022. The full text is below. An amendment moved by The Greens to establish joint (ie members from both houses) committees to oversight the Pandemic Health Response and the Pandemic Economic Response was opposed by government and ALP senators and failed to pass.

Senator Cormann in his ministerial statement said
"Parliament not sitting for a period does not mean the government is not under scrutiny from the parliament... We will also be supporting the establishment of a dedicated select committee to be chaired by the shadow finance minister, Senator Gallagher, which will be examining and scrutinising the government's response to COVID-19. In fact, our government very much welcomes the establishment of this Senate select committee, which will have as its job to scrutinise and question all of the initiatives and measures taken by our government in responding to the coronavirus crisis.

That committee will be supported from the coalition side by Senator James Paterson, a very experienced committee chair across the broader Prime Minister and Cabinet and Finance portfolios, who will be our nominee for Deputy Chair, and Senator Perin Davey, who will bring an important regional perspective to the work of that committee. All interested senators will be able to participate in that long-term inquiry as they see fit.

It also, of course, remains possible for senators to ask ministers questions on notice, and I know a number of colleagues in this chamber take furious advantage of that opportunity. Furthermore, the parliament may well sit again between now and August, if and as required. The motion the Senate agreed to unanimously when we last met allowed for the President to determine the day and time of the next meeting of the Senate at the request of or with the agreement of the Leader of the Government in the Senate and the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate. That is, in fact, precisely how today's sitting of the Senate came about, and I will be moving a motion to the same effect before the Senate adjourns today. To put it simply: the Senate can sit and will sit to ensure measures are implemented that protect Australians and support the economy, jobs and Australians in need of support, in response to the increasing threat of the COVID-19 coronavirus. But, during this period, we will only sit if that is necessary for us to act consistently, as much as we can, with the public health advice directed by medical experts to all Australians."

Thanks Open Australia for the links.