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Finance and Public Administration Legislation Committee
COAG Reform Council

COAG Reform Council


CHAIR: Minister, do you wish to make an opening statement?

Senator Abetz: All is good. No need for an opening statement.

CHAIR: Mr Frost, do you wish to make an opening statement?

Mr Frost : No.

Senator WONG: Mr Frost, the government has made a decision to abolish the COAG Reform Council—correct?

Mr Frost : That is correct.

Senator WONG: Are you on the secretariat?

Mr Frost : I am a part of the secretariat, yes.

Senator WONG: Are you actually an officer of PM&C now?

Mr Frost : I am. I am a public servant.

Senator WONG: Have you always been an officer of PM&C?

Mr Frost : Yes. Members of the secretariat have always been employed through the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.

Senator WONG: The COAG Reform Council was established in 2006, wasn't it?

Mr Frost : Yes, it was.

Senator WONG: Was it agreed between the states and territories and the Commonwealth?

Mr Frost : Yes, it was.

Senator WONG: As a way of keeping a performance audit on the implementation of agreed national reforms?

Mr Frost : That is correct.

Senator WONG: When was the COAG Reform Council advised of the intention to abolish it?

Mr Frost : We were advised following the COAG meeting on 2 May.

Senator WONG: Was it discussed with first ministers at that time?

Ms Cross : Yes, it was discussed, at the COAG meeting.

Senator WONG: And did first ministers agree to its abolition?

Ms Cross : There was certainly no dissent, but it was a decision of the Commonwealth in the Commonwealth budget.

Senator WONG: You have a lease at O'Connell Street, Sydney—is that correct, Mr Frost?

Mr Frost : We do.

Senator WONG: And that lease ends on 14 August this year?

Mr Frost : I believe it has been extended, but I do not have the details to hand.

Senator WONG: No-one has the details?

Mr Frost : The Corporate Services area may have that tomorrow. Alternatively I can take that on notice.

Senator WONG: I refer you to question No. 206, additional estimates. Can you tell me—now this was, I think, provided late as were pretty much all PM&C answers, but, as at the date that this was provided, the lease ends on 14 August and it is expected to be renewed, so the answer to that question is yes. So at that point, the council was not aware of any intention to abolish it—correct?

Mr Frost : No, we were not.

Senator WONG: So what is going to happen to the building?

Ms Cross : Senator, as part of managing the close-down of the CRC, that will be managed by our corporate area in the department. They will be available for questions tomorrow if you want a specific answer on what our intentions are. Presumably we would be looking at sub-leasing or finalising the lease.

Senator WONG: Well, you do not know that do you?

Ms Cross : No, but as I said, the people who are looking after that will be here tomorrow.

Senator WONG: Who negotiated the renewal? I think you said, Mr Frost, that it had been renewed.

Mr Frost : Yes. We were aware that it was renewed, but we did not conduct the negotiations ourselves.

Senator WONG: When were you aware it was renewed?

Mr Frost : I would need to take that on notice to give you an exact timing, but it was approximately—you need to advise them about six months in advance of a renewal.

Senator WONG: Okay, so coming back from August that will be February.

Mr Frost : Potentially, yes, but I would need to confirm that.

Senator WONG: Now I have read a number of the reports of the COAG Reform Council, and obviously they do annual progress reports plus they do reports on specific national agreements—correct?

Mr Frost : That is correct.

Senator WONG: And would you describe them as reasonably comprehensive reports?

Mr Frost : That is our intent.

Senator WONG: And they provide an important framework by which implementation targets can be assessed and measured?

Mr Frost : We would think so, yes.

Senator WONG: Perhaps you can just explain very briefly to me the sorts of expertise that you have had to develop within the council to enable—sorry, how long have you been there, Mr Frost?

Mr Frost : I have been there since 2008.

Senator WONG: Okay, so talk to me about the sorts of metrics you have had to proof, I suppose, the expertise that you think the secretariat has had to develop and so forth.

Mr Frost : You could classify the agreements that we report on as primarily falling into two different categories. One is in which we report in a qualitative sense, of which probably the premier one would be the National Partnership Agreement to Deliver a Seamless National Economy, and for that primarily we are looking at policy analysis skills, negotiation skills with the governments obviously, and writing and communications skills generically. Similarly, with national agreements or other types of agreements that we report on in a qualitative sense, we have developed quite a bit of statistical expertise in-house and familiarity with data developments in the areas that we report on—in health, education, disability, skills, and closing the gap on Indigenous disadvantage.

Senator WONG: I want to come to Indigenous shortly. On the SNE, I remember there was a PC report that talked about the productivity benefits to the economy of a number of those reforms and, I think, the national competition reforms. In the final report on a seamless national economy, did you do an assessment of the benefit to the national economy of those reforms?

Mr Frost : We did not assess the benefits; we drew on existing Productivity Commission work on benefits.

Senator WONG: And just remind me how much that was? How many billion?

Mr Frost : The Productivity Commission estimated that completion of the reforms would lower business costs by $4 billion per year and lead to productivity improvements increasing GDP by up to $6 billion per year. That was based on an assessment of a subset of 17 of the reforms.

Senator WONG: So these are the reforms that were under the previous government and that were progressed over the last number of years, correct?

Mr Frost : Yes, they were agreed at the end of 2008.

Senator WONG: And implemented subsequently.

Mr Frost : Yes.

Senator WONG: Part of the benefit of the CRC model is that that is a public reporting against which all governments can be assessed, correct?

Mr Frost : Yes.

Senator WONG: And that is done independently of government?

Mr Frost : We do operate independently of governments.

Senator WONG: So you would consult with the Commonwealth and the states and territories, but ultimately your report is independent.

Mr Frost : Yes. We would consult governments for one month on a draft report. Following that, the council would make an independent decision on whether or not to take on board any comments put forward by governments.

Senator WONG: And, whilst it is the case that the council cannot force governments to do anything, in essence it is a system which relies on public scrutiny and public transparency of governments' performance, correct?

Mr Frost : Yes.

Senator WONG: And the council itself is independent?

Mr Frost : That is true.

Senator WONG: The abolition of the council will mean that any work on the performance or implementation of these sorts of national agreements occurs within Prime Minister and Cabinet, correct?

Mr Frost : I am not aware of the arrangements that are in place as an alternative to us.

Senator WONG: But there is no suggestion you are aware of that there would be any independent body involved.

Ms Cross : There has been funding provided to the PC to look at some of these—

Senator WONG: For one year.

Ms Cross : for one year to look at some of these reporting arrangements. As part of our discussions with the PC, we are looking at what those ongoing arrangements might be, drawing on some of the publications like ROGS, the report on government service, which is also prepared quite independently.

Senator WONG: It is not the case that the government has made a decision that the Productivity Commission will take on this role on an ongoing basis, is it?

Ms Cross : It is the case that the ROGS report contains a lot of independent data which the CRC has used in its own reports.

Senator WONG: That was not my question. Do not answer a different question; we are going to be here for two days, and it will end up being very lengthy. I asked a different question. The government has not made a decision to give the PC an ongoing role in performing the work that was previously done by the COAG Reform Council, has it?

Ms Cross : The government has provided one year funding. As part of our discussions with the PC we are looking at how we manage the ongoing monitoring of performance. There are options to do that using ROGS data, which is still prepared independent of PM&C. So, although there is only one year funding, that does not mean that the longer-term reporting arrangements will not be independent.

Senator WONG: But that is still being considered.

Ms Cross : That is right.

Senator WONG: What you have given me is a process answer. I said there is no decision by government to ensure there is an independent reporting process, is there?

Ms Cross : There is no decision not to. They have given the money to—

Senator WONG: Except that you have abolished the council which does the independent reporting.

Ms Cross : But, as I said, a lot of the reporting the CRC did was drawn from ROGS data and other data which will continue to be collected and which is independent.

Senator WONG: Alright. The government has made a decision to abolish the COAG Reform Council. The government has not made any decision to guarantee ongoing independent reporting, have they?

Ms Cross : I think the decision was to look at the transitional arrangements, and those are the discussions we are having—

Senator WONG: Is there a policy decision to guarantee or to continue independent reporting or not. That is a yes/no question.

Ms Cross : The decision was to give funding to the PC so we could look at transitional reporting arrangements.

Senator WONG: Why is this so difficult? I am asking you a question which, as a public servant, you ought to be able to answer: whether or not there has been a policy decision to do this or whether the government is still in this area.

Ms Cross : I guess what I am saying is that, if the decision was to look at transitional arrangements, that implies that there will be ongoing arrangements, not to cease. As I said, we have not finished those discussions with the PC, but the fact that we are looking at transitional arrangements to me implies that there will be ongoing reporting. What we need to do is work out with the PC how best to do that.

Senator WONG: I am very pleased that you want to share what is implied to you. That is not what I am asking. I am asking what government policy is, and what I am putting to you—and, if it is incorrect, please say something else—is that the government has determined the COAG Reform Council. The government has provided the PC with one year transitional funding. Whatever ongoing discussions you might be having at officer level, it is correct to say the government has not made any decision to ensure that there will be ongoing independent assessment of national agreements implementation.

Ms Cross : I will repeat. The decision was to give funding to the PC, which does provide independent data such as ROGS, to look at the transitional reporting arrangements.

Senator WONG: What is your understanding of the policy position of the government post a year from now—post the PC funding?

Ms Cross : That there will still be some sort of performance reporting, and that is what we are discussing with the PC.

Senator WONG: Alright. Where is that outlined?

Ms Cross : As I said, the decision is to look at transitional reporting arrangements. The discussions we are having are what are the ongoing reporting arrangements.

Senator Abetz: It should be noted that this is a saving of $8 million. All these sums add up, and as we speak we are borrowing $1,000 million per month just to pay the interest on the accrued debt to date. We did go through the budget and look for all sorts of savings. Are some of these decisions pleasant? No. But we are looking at more efficient ways of trying to achieve the same thing. So the COAG council is being abolished, as we have heard. We have the Productivity Commission undertaking a review to provide some framework for ongoing assessment so there is still some assessment process for the future for these agreements that need to be implemented.

CHAIR: Thank you. Senator Wong.

Senator WONG: You have just asserted that there will be some—did you say 'independent'?

Ms Cross : The PC prepares the report on government services—ROGS—which I think would be viewed as independent data and was the data that the CRC largely drew on, so I do think it is seen as independent.

Senator WONG: You have said that six or seven times. I do understand words, thank you. The problem is that what you are asserting is a process. I am asking about a policy position. Is it the government's policy position—has government made a decision or have they not yet made a decision—that they will ensure there is independent monitoring of the sort that the COAG Reform Council engaged in post the first year with the PC, or is that still a matter being considered?

Ms Cross : I think it would be fair to say there will not be reporting in the same way the CRC has done, because the CRC has been abolished, but they are looking at what the future reporting arrangements should be.

Senator WONG: When will that decision be made?

Ms Cross : That is something we will be working on over the next 12 months with the PC.

Senator WONG: What consultation occurred with the CRC prior to its abolition?

Mr Frost : We were not consulted. We were informed of the decision following the COAG meeting.

Senator WONG: What functions at this stage will be absorbed into PM&C?

Ms Cross : PM&C will be responsible for monitoring performance against national agreements. Exactly how that monitoring will occur is also still being worked through. The other point I should add is that, in the longer term, these are the sorts of issues that will be picked up in the reform of federation white paper. That is where they will be looking at roles and responsibilities and the appropriate accountability frameworks for those roles.

Senator WONG: If PM&C are monitoring national agreements, what is the discussion with the PC about then?

Ms Cross : The function that they are picking up in the short term is reporting on national partnerships, because there are still some national partnership agreements that need to be reported on. Then they are looking also at the long-term reporting arrangements, drawing on sources of data like ROGS. You have said that you want to talk about Indigenous later, but that is part of the discussions that we are having with the PC. That is, the Indigenous data that is collected that we need to use to monitor the Closing the Gap performance.

Senator WONG: With whom are those discussions occurring in relation to Indigenous?

Ms Cross : Again, with the PC.

Senator WONG: Have you consulted with any Indigenous representatives about this matter and about what the ongoing monitoring arrangements will be?

Ms Cross : I do not think we are at that stage yet. The decision was only announced in the budget. We have had some preliminary discussions, but it is very early in the process.

Senator WONG: There have been some substantial concerns raised by a number of leading Aboriginal figures as to the risks associated with not having robust, independent reporting, such as was provided by the COAG Reform Council.

Ms Cross : I am not aware of that. That would be in the Indigenous area. Liza Carroll is the head of our Indigenous group.

Senator WONG: Hang on. You are not aware. You have just told—

Ms Cross : Sorry, I am not aware of the issues that have been raised by Indigenous stakeholders. I am aware of the need to look at how we continue to report against Closing the Gap.

Senator WONG: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, Mick Gooda, is concerned about the federal government's decision to scrap the COAG Reform Council. There has been a number of discussions about this publicly. Is that not something PM&C is aware of?

Ms Cross : PM&C is. I am just saying that I have not personally been monitoring it.

Senator WONG: Who is handling the negotiations with the Productivity Commission?

Ms Cross : I have been party to the initial discussions. But, as I said, I was not personally aware of the specific issues that those Indigenous stakeholders have raised.

Senator WONG: So you are responsible on behalf of PM&C for negotiating these new arrangements, but as of yet you are not aware of any concerns being raised by Indigenous Australians about the abolition of the CRC and the importance of robust benchmarking?

Ms Cross : As a general issue, yes. But if they have got specific concerns, no. I have not seen their specific concerns. What we are looking at with the PC is what we currently report and how we continue to report in future. Again, a lot of the data is actually complied by the PC through a separate report that they do on Indigenous outcomes.

Senator WONG: Correct.

Ms Cross : So they will continue to produce that report.

Senator WONG: Have any of the states or territories made any representations to the council, following its abolition?

Mr Frost : No. We have not received any representations from the states or territories.

Senator WONG: Was there any consideration to other approaches, such as relocating the council in order to decrease costs? That is, approaches other than abolition?

Ms Cross : No. I should point out that the Commonwealth only funds 50 per cent of the CRC's budget. So if the states wish to continue funding it, they could choose to do that.

Senator WONG: You have taken the talking points well, haven't you? Just like on schools and hospitals.

Ms Cross : No.

Senator Abetz: Would you mind not interrupting?

Ms Cross : With that funding—

Senator WONG: She is just running a political line.

Senator Abetz: Would you mind not interrupting.

Senator WONG: It is a political line.

Senator Abetz: Would you mind not interrupting.

CHAIR: Sorry, just one at a time, please.

Ms Cross : The point that I was making is that, independent of the Commonwealth funding, 50 per cent of the funding is provided by the states.

Senator WONG: Yes, I got that the first time.

Ms Cross : They could continue to fund the CRC as their own body for independent reporting if those chose to.

Senator WONG: I heard that the first time. All I am saying is that it sounds a little like the Prime Minister and the Treasurer simply—

Senator Abetz: How often are you going to interrupt?

Senator WONG: If she simply repeats the answer that she gave on the previous occasion, we will continue to interrupt.

CHAIR: Senator Wong, you did make the point before to Ms Cross that she should allow you to complete your question.

Senator WONG: True.

CHAIR: Indeed, you should allow Ms Cross and everyone else to conclude their answer.

Senator WONG: Is she going to say it for a third time now? Are you going to do it a third time, Ms Cross?

CHAIR: It does not matter.

Senator WONG: Do you think you will be happy to leave the talking points?

CHAIR: You are now interrupting me.

Senator WONG: Sorry, that is true.

CHAIR: It is not the first time today I have had to mention this. Could you please let the evidence be presented in response to your questions and then we can proceed in an orderly fashion.

Senator WONG: I am waiting for Ms Cross. She is running her set of talking points and I am just waiting for the third time.

Ms Cross : I have finished my answer. I was not trying to make a political point. I was merely pointing to the option that is open to the states—at no cost to them—which is to continue funding it at half the current level.

Senator WONG: Mr Frost, we did not have time to discuss it a lot. I do not really want to go into it now; but presumably, in the course of the work you have done since 2008, there is a reasonable amount of expertise that now resides in the secretariat around benchmarking methodology, assessment of performance and so forth in relation to the national partnerships and national agreements. Is that correct?

Mr Frost : Yes, I imagine there would be.

Senator WONG: What consultation is occurring between the council or the secretariat, the PC and PM&C to ensure that those learnings are transmitted?

Mr Frost : We have not been involved in any specific discussions at this stage.

Senator WONG: How many reports are part way through?

Mr Frost : We have one more completed report to release and one report which we will submit to COAG at the end of this month. That is one on the National Healthcare Agreement, which is completed, and one on the National Partnership Agreement on Improving Public Hospital Services, which we will finalise and submit at the end of this month.

Senator WONG: Are you intending to complete those?

Mr Frost : We are.

Senator WONG: But the latter has been ended by the government?

Mr Frost : It has, from what I understand.

Senator WONG: Give me the date around when you anticipate that one.

Mr Frost : We will submit that national partnership report to COAG on 30 May.

Senator WONG: That is public hospital improvement, isn't it?

Mr Frost : Improving public hospital services, which is largely to do with emergency departments.

Senator WONG: On preventative health, did you do anything on that one?

Mr Frost : We have not reported yet on preventative health.

Senator WONG: Are you proposing to report prior to your being abolished?

Mr Frost : No, we are not starting any new reports.

Senator WONG: So what was the other one that was extant, being partway through?

Mr Frost : The National Healthcare Agreement. That was completed and submitted to COAG on 30 April. We will release that in the coming weeks.

Senator WONG: Does that include the dental services?

Mr Frost : It does include some indicators of dental services.

Senator WONG: Can you tell me—perhaps you might need to take it on notice—who was consulted, if anyone, within the secretariat about the leasing arrangements that we discussed at the outset?

Mr Frost : I was consulted.

Senator WONG: You were consulted?

Mr Frost : Yes, I was asked if we wanted to renew the lease.

Senator WONG: When were you asked that?

Mr Frost : I do not know exactly the date, but—if I recall correctly—it had to be approximately six months in advance of the end of the lease in order to renew it.

Senator WONG: This is the discussion to which you were referring previously.

Mr Frost : Yes.

Senator WONG: I am sorry; I did not understand that.

Mr Frost : I do not have the exact details to hand.

Senator WONG: The consulter was someone in the corporate services?

Mr Frost : It was the corporate area of the department.

Senator WONG: At that stage, you indicated that you did want to renew the lease?

Mr Frost : Yes.

Senator WONG: So presumably at that stage you had no knowledge of any possibility that you were going to be abolished.

Mr Frost : Not at that stage, no.

Senator WONG: Thank you.

Senator McKENZIE: What was the annual budget of the COAG Reform Council?

Ms Cross : The state contribution was about $10.2 million and the Commonwealth contribution was around $10.2 million.

Mr Frost : That might be an aggregated figure. Our annual expenditure in 2013-14 was to be $5.5 million, approximately.

Ms Cross : Sorry, I am probably doing over the forward estimates.

Mr Frost : So half of that would be Commonwealth funding and half would come from the states and territories, according to their population.

Senator McKENZIE: How much funding has the CRC received since its inception?

Mr Frost : I do not have a total figure. I could take that on notice.

Senator McKENZIE: How many reports did the COAG Reform Council produce last year and how many staff were involved in the production of each report, on average?

Mr Frost : I do not know the number of reports and I do not have the figures here. I could take that on notice. But in our total staffing for approved positions, we can have up to 30 people, but we operate at a lower level than that. That is typically around 24 or 25 staff. We presently have, as of 30 April 2014, 21.99 fulltime equivalents. But it was 24 people.

Senator McKENZIE: Regarding the reports for which you will be getting the number to us, what tangible outcomes from the states or the Commonwealth did they result in?

Senator Wong interjecting

Senator McKENZIE: I will wait for Mr Frost, thanks.

CHAIR: You had five years to answer these questions, Senator Wong.

Mr Frost : It is difficult to point to precise tangible outcomes of this kind of reporting. However, one thing that we did draw out in the final report on the national partnership on the seamless national economy was that a higher proportion of the reforms that had reward payments attached, which was what our report was substantially about, were completed than those that had no reward money attached. That is a number of reforms that were completed in the national seamless economy agreement.

Senator McKENZIE: How many reports does the CRC expect to produce in 2014?

Mr Frost : In 2014, we would produce six national agreement reports and two national partnership reports.

Senator McKENZIE: On the reports from last year, what feedback did you get from the states?

Mr Frost : We largely get quite positive feedback, but obviously we get a lot of feedback about the content, particularly, with regard to technical issues to do with the data involved, whether or not we treated it appropriately and also whether or not we have stayed within our terms of reference.

Senator McKENZIE: On the data, would you expand on your comments around what the states are saying about data and its usefulness.

Mr Frost : In many cases, these will be technical issues to do with the production of the data. In some cases, for example, states with a large remote population might question some of the data insofar as it applies to remote populations. There are often discussions that we have about that. There are questions—

Senator McKENZIE: Have we agreed definitions around the types of data to be collected between the states and how it is to be analysed?

Mr Frost : The data are agreed amongst governments, and in the lead-up to us preparing a report, in fact quite a way beforehand, there is a process to settle data specifications, which is run primarily by the Productivity Commission in its role in supporting the steering committee on the review of government service provision.

Senator McKENZIE: I just want to go to Mr Brumby's position on the council. Was it full time and renumerated?

Mr Frost : It is part time and it is remunerated.

Senator McKENZIE: How much is that remuneration per annum?

Mr Frost : For the duration of Mr Brumby's appointment, he would be remunerated $279,000.

Senator McKENZIE: How many council meetings did Mr Brumby chair for each year that he was chairman?

Mr Frost : I would need to take that question on notice.

Senator McKENZIE: Thank you. Was Mr Brumby based in Melbourne for the whole time he was chairman of the council?

Mr Frost : Yes.

Senator McKENZIE: When you are breaking down the council meetings, I would appreciate the travel costs for each year that he was chairman of the council. Is there any redundancy payment that Mr Brumby would qualify for?

Mr Frost : Not to my knowledge.

Senator McKENZIE: Could you also give the total travel spend for the council and its staff between 2007-08 and 2012-13? Do you have that information to hand?

Mr Frost : I do not have that to hand.

Senator McKENZIE: Will the council's office officially close down now that it has been abolished?

Mr Frost : We will cease operations on 30 June.

Senator McKENZIE: What happens to the taxpayer funded office equipment and furniture once the council office closes?

Mr Frost : I am not familiar with those arrangements, but the department's corporate area might be and they will be available tomorrow.

Senator McKENZIE: Thank you, I will follow up with them. Would you go to the selection process that saw Mr Brumby appointed.

Ms Cross : That was a process managed by the department rather than by the CRC. We provide advice on possible chairs, and then a decision is made. The chair position, from memory, is agreed by the Commonwealth but we would consult the states ahead of finalising it.

Senator McKENZIE: Was there a shortlist of candidates in that advice?

Ms Cross : You are testing my memory. Normally we would put up more than one name, but I would have to check in this instance. From memory, there would have been a small number of names put forward.

Senator McKENZIE: Was the former senior adviser to Paul Keating, Mary O'Loughlin, appointed head of the council secretariat.

Mr Frost : Yes, she was appointed in either late 2008 or early 2009.

Senator McKENZIE: So what was the selection process around that? Is it similar to what Ms Cross just outlined, or is it more formal?

Mr Frost : That selection process was an advertised position in the usual fashion.

Senator WONG: It is a public service contract?

Ms Cross : It is.

Senator McKENZIE: Will she receive any sort of redundancy payout because of the council's abolition?

Mr Frost : There are a number of options available to government—

Senator McKENZIE: Could you outline them.

Senator WONG: She is a public servant, so we are not talking about the chair of the council, who was appointed with coalition premiers' agreement, but that is another issue. If you want to play politics now that is fine, but generally in this committee we have not gone to the terms and conditions of individual public servants if their employment ends. I do not have an issue with the senator asking questions generally about staffing arrangements et cetera, but I do have an issue with a particular public servant being raised and her employment conditions being the subject of direct questions.

CHAIR: I appreciate what you are saying.

Senator WONG: Can we just do it a different way?

CHAIR: I think that is right. Ms Cross was outlining some general options that were available, without entering into some specifics. I think that is appropriate at this stage. Senator Wong does make a valid point.

Ms Cross : So generally we have been talking to staff at the CRC about what options are available for redeployment. There are options of voluntary redundancy, and we are looking to work with the staff to see what their individual preferences are, and then to support them.

Senator McKENZIE: Is one of those options to be transferred back to PM&C?

Ms Cross : For people who want to move to Canberra, which is largely where we are based, certainly if that is their interest then we will see if there is a position available for them. It would not be automatic.

Senator McKENZIE: Maybe you will have to do this on notice, but for each year of the council's existence since 2006 could you please provide the number of staff employed.

Mr Frost : I can do that.

Senator SMITH: I am looking at a document available on the website called 'COAG Reform Council—Completed reports, timeframes and outcomes'. Can you tell me what things like 'Commonwealth announcement', 'COAG response' and 'awaited' mean. These are terminologies that are used to describe progress of COAG reports.

Mr Frost : On that web page we keep track of how our reports that have been submitted to date have been dealt with. The categories that you referred to, 'awaited' means we have not yet received a formal response—

Senator SMITH: From?

Mr Frost : From COAG or from the Commonwealth. Where it says 'COAG response', we give a date to the release of the response to the recommendations in the report by the Council of Australian Governments. Where it refers to a 'Commonwealth response', that would relate to a national partnership report that has reward payments. Typically that response is an announcement of how the Commonwealth has decided on the reward payments to be disbursed to governments.

Senator SMITH: When looking at that list of reports, I can only identify eight that have resulted in Commonwealth announcements. Can you explain what is happening there.

Mr Frost : Sometimes COAG itself will respond to those reports. There will be a mix of different potential responses to reports where there are reward payments. Either the Commonwealth minister, the relevant minister or the Treasurer will put out a release with regard to a decision on reward payments. Sometimes, however, COAG itself will deal with those reports.

Senator SMITH: Is the expectation that every report results in an announcement?

Mr Frost : Not every report. The council anticipates some kind of response to each of its reports.

Senator SMITH: If we look more closely at 2013, last year, my calculation is that there were 13 reports and five of them had resulted in a COAG response.

Mr Frost : I do not have the document in front of me, but that would sound about right.

Senator SMITH: I am curious, going back to some of the Senator McKenzie's questions. Looking at the previous forward estimates, there was an estimated $10 million over four years for employing 24 people, but when you were asked to point to tangible outcomes you said it was difficult to point to tangible outcomes.

Mr Frost : It is difficult to point to tangible outcomes because that is the nature of reporting on outcomes in society. They are statistical outcomes, like life expectancy, mortality rates and things that. It is difficult, given the amount of time that has passed, to point to any direct relationship between performance reporting and the outcomes.

Senator McKENZIE: Do you have school attendance for Indigenous students? That would be quite a tangible outcome?

Mr Frost : Yes. School attendance has gone down.

Senator SMITH: Australia is not the only federated nation in the world. I am curious to know: had the COAG Reform Council over its existence looked at alternative ways of delivering the same sort of independent monitoring of the performance of Australian governments?

Mr Frost : We were always looking at ways of improving our work, but we also had to stay within the rules set out for us in the Intergovernmental Agreement on Federal Financial Relations. They required that we report on national agreements every year and they set out the performance indicators and the frameworks and they set out the time lines and our consultation processes. We remained true to those. Most of our efforts to improve were within those terms and mainly focused on the communication and understanding of the data.

Senator SMITH: So it is not beyond possibility that there is a different, more efficient way to provide monitoring of Australian governments?

Mr Frost : It is possible. We, in fact, delivered a report last year that argued that there were some improvements that could be made to the framework.

Senator SMITH: I am not familiar with that report. Could you step us through some of the headlines?

Mr Frost : It is called Lessons for federal reform.

Senator SMITH: I have seen the document—you are right.

Mr Frost : I should read it verbatim?

Senator SMITH: No, you should not. I know where to find it.

Mr Frost : There are some specific areas—three broad areas—in terms of strengthening governance for COAG, which related to the processes of COAG itself but also things such as bringing ministerial councils more into the process. Also: to sharpen performance reporting and accountability, which is largely to do with improvements to the framework, and attaching the outcomes more directly to government activities that underpin them; and further work to build the evidence base, which related to the idea of looking at the performance reporting and seeing where results had gone well and investigating further where they had gone well in case there were lessons that could be learnt for all governments.

Senator SMITH: So ensuring that there is independent monitoring of Australian governments and their performance is not actually dependent on the existence of this COAG secretariat because there might be alternative ways, perhaps more efficient ways, of delivering similar outcomes and perhaps more efficient use of taxpayers' money and perhaps more efficient use of human resources.

Mr Frost : If you are asking whether it is possible that there could be other types of independent performance monitoring arrangements within a federation, I guess the answer is yes.

Senator SMITH: Thanks very much, Mr Frost. Just to be clear, Ms Cross, when you talked about the transitional arrangements, if I understood your response correctly, you were being quite particular with the word 'transitional', in the sense that they were being reviewed, not abolished. Did I hear you correctly?

Ms Cross : That is correct. It is quite possible that what we will agree is that some of the ROGS data form the basis of further independent reporting. That sort of detail has not been worked through yet, but we are having those discussions.

Senator SMITH: Thank you very much.

CHAIR: I believe that concludes this area of questioning. I thank the officers from the COAG Reform Council and Ms Cross for your attendance today. I invite the officers of the Official Secretary to the Governor-General to the table.