Reform agenda has slowly COAGulated

The COAG reform agenda, having stalled long ago under Labor’s chaotic governing style, is showing about the same signs of life as the US housing market, if the latest performance reports are anything to by.


The 2009-10 performance reports released in recent days did not make for pleasant reading. Almost two years after the deadline for Kevin Rudd’s promise to take over the hospital system if the states did not lift their game, we are still no closer to a solution.

Elective surgery waiting times rose nationally while “financial barriers” caused one million Australians to put off seeing a GP. No doubt these financial barriers will only worsen as the inflationary effects of Labor’s stimulus spending come home to roost through higher taxes and interest rate hikes.

At least there was enough data available to provide an accurate picture of the health and hospital system. The affordable housing agreement was more conspicuous for what it didn’t say.

In what Donald Rumsfeld would have termed “known unknowns”, the COAG Reform Council most concerningly could not provide a comprehensive progress report on the National Partnerships on Social Housing; Remote Indigenous Housing; Homelessness; and, the Nation Building and Jobs Plan, “primarily due to limitations in available and comparable performance information”. 

This was compounded by the fact that one of the Council’s priorities for improving the performance reporting framework of the agreement had still not been developed after 18 months: 

The agreement provides that governments will develop performance indicators for the outcome that people have access to housing through an efficient and responsive housing market. No such indicator has been developed in the eighteen months since the agreement was finalised. The council therefore reaffirms its previous recommendation that the indicator (or indicators) be developed. (Page xiv, Executive Summary, National Affordable Housing Agreement: Performance report for 2009-10).

At a time when we have a housing shortage of 202,400, skyrocketing utility bills and rents rising well above general inflation, the fact that we can’t even develop a performance indicator, let alone measure progress of housing reforms is a bad reflection on the Gillard Government, especially after the Prime Minister’s commitment earlier this year to refocus on the COAG reform agenda.

The National Disability Agreement provided much of the same under Gillard Labor, with the COAG Reform Council admitting that they don’t know if people with a disability are getting improved services. 

Data was available for only two of the six National Disability Agreement performance benchmarks. As my colleague, Shadow Minister for Disabilities Senator Mitch Fifield has pointed out it is shameful there is no evidence of improvement for disability services for children aged 0-4. 

Earlier this month, COAG Reform Council Chair Paul McClintock, who has the unenviable task of trying to manage a growing list of reform demands from governments with limited resources, said during a speech to company directors that the CRC’s structure had not evolved to match its heightened role. 

And even though he showed typical restraint expected of a public servant, Mr McClintock still considered it appropriate to say that the CRC has reports on things as serious as health, education and skills, which are still waiting after 12 months without a response from COAG. 

He also outlined a list of reports awaiting response including Indigenous Reform, Disability, Affordable Housing and Healthcare, along with Water Management, Education and Skills and Workforce Development and Education. 

Clearly, the Gillard Government is continuing the Rudd theme of outsourcing responsibility for an ambitious reform agenda to the COAG Reform Council, without first exerting any pressure on relevant agencies to provide up-to-date data to track the progress of reforms. 

Instead of taking responsibility for promised reforms that are way overdue, the Government spends all of its time defending the policies it didn’t promise, like its friendless carbon tax.

Aside from further eroding the Government’s already flagging credibility, this creates more uncertainty for emissions-intensive sectors like the transport industry that already has to navigate a maze of different state regulations due to Labor’s inaction on COAG transport and road reform, and now faces inevitably higher fuel costs under a carbon tax. 

It is high time for this Government to get back to basics and focus on the reforms that are expected of it by mainstream Australia, not the demands of the Greens, who look like increasingly like the ones in the driver’s seat in this minority government.