Kevin Rudd has added indigenous affairs to this week’s first Council of Australian Governments (COAG) meeting since he was elected Prime Minister. COAG meets in Melbourne on Thursday. The meeting is shaping up to be a busy one with both the federal government and their state counterparts queuing up to set the agenda. Some have called this pre-Christmas event an example of “Kevin 24/7”.
The COAG meeting will also discuss issues of education, health, infrastructure, business deregulation, housing, water and climate change. But it was Monday's announcement that federal cabinet had decided to add indigenous affairs to that list that caused most media interest. The request to add it to the agenda came from Queensland Premier Anna Bligh following the worldwide media attention about the case of a 10-year-old girl who had sex with nine young males in the Cape York community of Aurukun. Bligh said she did not expect any "miracle cures" would come out of the meeting but she hoped to achieve progress on several matters.
COAG is the peak intergovernmental forum in Australia and meets on an adhoc basis. It comprises the Prime Minister, State Premiers, Territory Chief Ministers and the President of the Australian Local Government Association (ALGA). Established by Paul Keating in 1992, its role is to initiate, develop, and monitor nationally significant policy reforms which require cooperative action. Examples include water reform, counter-terrorism arrangements, and environmental regulation.
This is the first COAG meeting in the era of so-called “wall to wall” Labor administrations. COAG’s last meeting in April discussed a range of issues including water reform. The meeting was most notable for Victoria’s refusal http://www.thewest.com.au/aapstory.aspx?StoryName=372475 to sign up for the national water reform agenda which had at its heart the $10 billion plan to save the Murray-Darling Basin. But while this disagreement captured public attention, the meeting itself made progress on a range of unsexy issues including national rail safety legislation, trade measurement. occupational health and safety standards, and state variations in building codes and business numbers.
The various administrations have different ideas what is the top priority for this week’s meeting. Although Queensland Premier Anna Bligh was the one to put Aboriginal issues on the agenda, she said says Australia’s problematic health systems should take centre stage. "Number one on my agenda will be the health system…and it'll be followed very closely by water, infrastructure and more difficult social issues such as the problems confronting Indigenous communities," she said. "What I hope is that we see out of our first COAG with the new Prime Minister that we see the beginning of a new era in Commonwealth-state relations.”
But Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Tom Calma says Indigenous affairs shuld be the top priority. He said it was important that it becomes a high priority agenda item to be discussed on an ongoing basis rather than just the standing agenda item. He said COAG should ask the Ministerial Council for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs to prepare a comprehensive report on the state of indigenous affairs. Without this high level attention, he said “it ultimately results in a lack of sustained attention to the issues”.
The fate of the River Murray is also likely to be a high-profile item for discussion. Victoria was the only state to oppose the $10 billion federal takeover of the Murray-Darling Basin under the Howard administration. South Australia wants to bring the issue up in these talks but the Rudd government is refusing to say if the matter will be resolved this time round.
Others, including The Age have suggested less pressing items (though perhaps more electorally sensitive) such as surgery waiting lists are top of the agenda. They quoted PM Rudd saying that Health Minister Nicola Roxon had hoped to have a plan ready to discuss quickly cut elective surgery waiting lists with her state and territory counterparts.
But Rudd knows it is the Aboriginal issue that is the most sensitive. He has ruled out forcing a Northern Territory-style intervention in Queensland until the effectiveness of the Howard government initiative can be measured. He will look at a Queensland Government initiative to make payments to Aboriginal communities conditional on good behaviour. "I'm looking forward to a very broad-ranging conversation with the premiers and chief ministers on what further actions can profitably, productively and co-operatively be undertaken,” he said. “Let's face it, there are huge challenges out there.” On that point, Rudd has few gainsayers.