The National Cabinet is an innovative idea in cooperative federalism. It brings together the Prime Minister and heads of the state and territory governments to provide coordination and cooperation as Australia responds to the COVID-19 pandemic.
It was styled a ‘War Cabinet’ – loose parallels could be drawn with the Menzies and Curtin Governments’ War Councils, which included Opposition members, military and other public servants during World War II.
With this history in mind, the Opposition argued that its Leader should join today’s National Cabinet.
The Labor MP Jim Chalmers argued that including the Leader of the Opposition in the National Cabinet would introduce a new kind of politics. It would ‘send a signal to the country about us all working together’.
The National Cabinet is not governed by constitutional convention. There are no rules about who can and can’t be included. Its members are not bound by collective responsibility, but trust would soon evaporate, if the Leader of the Opposition became privy to information he could use against the government.
The Opposition’s job is not to govern
While the idea may not have stopped the Leader of the Opposition from opposing, it might have created an undemocratic constraint.
Even though he may have been motivated by partisan political reasons, the Prime Minister may have done democracy a favour in rejecting the idea.
The government’s COVID-19 financial measures passed with the Opposition’s support. But there are very important democratic reasons why politics shouldn’t work like this all the time.
In short, people think differently. And people quite reasonably have different interests. Different perceptions of the national interest and different ways of working out how, if at all, to balance the relationship between the national and the personal interest.
Authoritarian societies try to suppress these differences. Liberal societies, like Australia, use parliamentary democracy to manage and mediate differences. It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t seek common ground, but we shouldn’t be alarmed when we can’t find it.
It is democratically important for the Opposition to openly scrutinise government decisions, propose alternatives and give voice to interests beyond the government’s stated priorities – casual workers, universities and the export education sector, temporary migrants and workers employed under Enterprise Bargaining Agreements, for example.
Paying the bills
While the Opposition agrees with the Prime Minister that money should be spent to ‘save lives and livelihoods’, there is no objective answer to how quickly that money should be repaid.
Until COVID-19, the government insisted that its focus on a Budget surplus was urgent and a mark of its economic management credentials. Pursuing a surplus meant there was no money to increase Newstart or for the level of infrastructure spending that the Reserve Bank said was necessary to stimulate growth.
The Opposition’s traditional approach sees a surplus as important but built on a tax system designed to simultaneously support increased spending on public services.
History suggests that there will be significant partisan differences as Australia considers how to deal with the long-term implications of a Budget deficit projected to reach $290 billion by next year.
The Reserve Bank’s advice is well reasoned and authoritative. But it must be open to contest and an independent Opposition has an important democratic role in that context.
The Leader of the Opposition needs to be free of the obligations and constraints of a National Cabinet to help develop and prosecute his party’s case, even if those obligations and constraints are not the same as those imposed on members of a conventional Cabinet.
Ordinarily, the task of holding governments to account belongs to the whole parliament. While Parliamentary committees are continuing to sit, neither House is sitting with the regularity that the present circumstances warrant.
There are good public health reasons for this, but as Parliament’s capacity to do its job is diminished, the role of Leader of the Opposition becomes increasingly important, as the voice of critique and as the voice of alternative positions.
Measures of long-term ideological significance have already been raised by the government.
Allowing employers to seek an employee vote to set aside an Enterprise Bargaining Agreement with 24 hours’ notice is extreme. Whether or not it’s justified needs proper scrutiny.
Just letting things go and saying we are all working together in the national interest means that the workers at risk of a pay cut, or diminished working conditions, don’t get the chance to have an alternative perspective raised.
Tax reform was an important point dividing the Coalition Government and Opposition at the 2019 election. Spending on public services was also a point of division. These divisions will become all the more significant as debates about how to reach a Budget surplus intensify.
Scrutiny and contest over the options helps voters to understand the issues and to cast an informed vote.
This article was originally published by Open Forum.