COAG: not a national policy "bottom drawer"

Kevin Rudd's ministers had better hope the correct meals and hairdryers are on hand if the long list of outstanding COAG reforms is to be addressed at today's meeting.

While health reform will apparently dominate the agenda - premiers have said they are willing to sit beyond today to reach an agreement - there are many unanswered questions in other less 'front-page' but vitally important reform areas.

COAG should also be considering the following areas: housing supply and affordability; water management; heavy vehicle regulation; renewable energy policy; a national e-health system; regulation of the legal system; education services for overseas students; vocational education regulation; food regulation; food security in remote indigenous communities and a national action plan to reduce violence against women, among others.

The Prime Minister must reassure the Australian community, business and industry, that progress is being made in these reform areas.

In January this year, before he chose to focus on health, Mr Rudd said productivity was his government's number one priority.

But while he has talked a good game on productivity, you only have to look at the impasse between the NSW and Victorian governments on the issue of transport regulation - in particular, truck widths - to see how his failure to end the blame game has threatened productivity.

Under the current system, Victoria allows trucks up to 3 metres wide to cross its borders while NSW only allows 2.5m. COAG has agreed on a national heavy vehicle regulator but this is a clayton's agreement until the states can sort out these details.

This dispute over 50 centimetres is estimated to cost $2.4 billion per year in potential national income.

It is a no-brainer - big rewards for seemingly very little effort. A prime minister elected on a promise to end the blame game should surely be able to broker an agreement between the states on this issue with a minimum of fuss.

However we haven't received any assurance that this matter will be discussed at upcoming COAG meetings.

Another plank of the Government's long-lost focus on productivity was the development of a national regulator for the vocational education sector to ensure we have a highly skilled and mobile workforce. The framework for the new national regulator is to be negotiated through an agreement between governments by the end of May, so we look forward to seeing the progress of that reform today too.

Then there is housing supply and affordability. Will the promised timetable for addressing the housing shortage be presented at COAG in the first half of this year, as promised?

This was another top priority for the government's micro-reform agenda and with the latest industry figures predicting that a million Australians could be without housing by 2020, the issue isn't going to go away any time soon.

And will COAG release the reports on disability services and indigenous housing at today's COAG meeting as promised?

An ambitious reform program is one thing, but under Mr Rudd, the COAG agenda has become as congested as the M4 Motorway on a weekday morning.

Mr Rudd would be much better off concentrating on a small number of priority areas and actually achieving concrete results, rather than using COAG as a national policy "bottom drawer".

Published on http://www.abc.net.au/unleashed/stories/s2876061.htm on 19 April 2010.

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