28 February 2011

New COAG system replaces Ministerial Councils

The Council of Australian Governments (COAG) has announced a major reform of the system of Ministerial Councils that has for some years been the main Commonwealth/State arena for formulating and implementing national (cross-jurisdictional) policy. The number of councils has been more than halved. The new system includes a series of Standing Councils, time-limited Select Councils, Legislative and Governance Fora, and COAG Working Groups. The new structure will take effect from 30th June 2011. No arrangements for underpinning standing committees or advisory committees have yet been announced.

The new system is outlined in the COAG communiqué of 13 February 2011 with detail in its ‘Attachment C’. The implications for the biodiversity sector are not yet clear. The old Natural Resource Management Ministerial Council (NRM MC) would appear to be being replaced by a new Standing Council on Environment & Water, with a similar translation for the Primary Industry MC. There will be a Select Council on Climate Change, and a Legislative & Governance Forum on the Murray-Darling basin.

However, the communiqué main text states that “these changes will see a fundamental shift towards a council system focused on strategic national priorities and new ways for COAG and its councils to identify and address issues of national significance”. COAG’s Attachment C further says “Standing Councils will support the move to a reform-based system by identifying a small number of priority issues of national significance (normally five to seven) they will deal with and in what timeframes, for endorsement by COAG.”

The emphasis on “a small number of priority issues” may be problematic, given the broad scope of the Standing Councils and the fact that that biodiversity management has already dropped well down the agendas of most governments.

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