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Monday, 9 August 2004
Page: 25921

Senator HARRADINE (5:28 PM) —I know the chamber's time limit on such matters but I do have to express my concern about the failure of the Council of Australian Governments to provide information which is quite essential for our consideration. The upshot is that national policy issues are being debated in an atmosphere of secrecy. COAG is not directly accountable to the Australian people, yet it has a profound influence on the way that we are governed. It lacks transparency. There have been a number of occasions when there have been requests for COAG documents, and they have either not been forthcoming or, alternatively, they have come when all the debate is over.

COAG is only a relatively recent invention, if I can use that word. It has been around for about 10 years. It is a council of Australian government ministers, but the agenda and papers are prepared by civil servants in the state and federal spheres. That is fine—I am not criticising civil servants, the majority of whom, presumably, are very dedicated people who provide high-quality advice to their ministers—but very few Australians have actually heard of COAG. It and its papers are not subject to freedom of information legislation. I am not objecting to the existence of COAG, because I think it is important that a council of Commonwealth and state ministers exists and there is a need for coordination of activities in various fields, not least of which are firefighting, land management and so on. I had some thoughts on this matter published in the Canberra Times of Thursday, 28 August last year. If people are interested, they can get it all off the Net.

I appeal to all sides to examine where we are going with COAG, whether it is undermining proper accountability and whether its processes are undermining our important democracy. We should calmly have a look at that because it is very important, particularly to the Senate because we are a house of review. Very often you come forward with a particular matter and the federal minister says, `That's a decision of COAG.' Ultimately, we have to make the decision here, and I believe we are entitled to get all of the information and background not only because it is important for our consideration of the matter but also because it is important to put ourselves in the position of the COAG ministers. You cannot do that unless you are provided with the papers upon which they have made their consideration. That should seem obvious to everybody.

For the good of democracy in Australia and for the good of COAG—because, as I said, it is important to have such a coordinating body—I appeal to both sides to look at this calmly and to examine it further. Ultimately, we have got to really have a good look at where we are going with COAG.