COAG Discussions Focus On Terrorism, Federation And Taxation

The Council of Australian Governments met in Canberra and discussed a range of issues, including terrorism, reform of the Federation and the taxation system.

COAG

The Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, held a joint press conference following the meeting. He was accompanied by Premiers Baird, Napthine, Newman, Barnett, Weatherill and Hodgman, as well as the Territory Chief Ministers Gallagher and Giles. Felicity-Ann Lewis represented Local Government.

The State have agreed to introduce legislation to support federal laws covering the arrest, monitoring, investigation and prosecution of domestic extremists and returning foreign fighters.

COAG also agreed that the Federation and Tax Reform White Papers need to progress together.

The meeting also considered overseas adoption, indigenous affairs, deregulation, the National Disability Insurance Scheme, infrastructure, the G20, the Royal Commission into the Home Insulation Programme, the gas pipeline connecting the Northern and Eastern Gas Markets, and the Ebola virus.

  • Listen to the COAG press conference (49m – transcript below)
  • Watch the press conference (50m)

Full text of the COAG Communique issued today.

COAG COMMUNIQUÉ

The Council of Australian Governments held its 38th meeting today in Canberra. Leaders thanked Mayor Felicity-ann Lewis, President of the Australian Local Government Association for her contribution to COAG at this her final meeting.

Counter-Terrorism Measures

COAG committed to taking all necessary steps to protect the Australian community from home grown terrorism. The Commonwealth has already announced $630 million for enhanced counter-terrorism measures, including expanded intelligence collection, law enforcement capability and border control measures. The states and territories (states) are working cooperatively with the Commonwealth on enhanced security measures. COAG noted the ongoing strength of that operational cooperation.

The Commonwealth committed to working with the states to ensure the Commonwealth’s $13.4 million commitment to strengthening community engagement and countering extremism augments and complements existing state programmes.

COAG discussed the issues of extremism and terrorism. It reaffirmed its firm commitment to work together to strengthen engagement with Australian communities and community leaders to counter radicalisation, and to reduce the influence of Australians returning from fighting with terrorist organisations abroad.

Our counter-terrorism efforts are targeted at preventing criminal activity. They are not targeted at any specific ethnic or religious groups and will never be so targeted. While Australians should be vigilant, they need to maintain their usual lives.

States agreed to introduce legislative amendments to their parliaments to safeguard the national laws underpinning our ability to arrest, monitor, investigate and prosecute domestic extremists and returning foreign fighters.

White Papers on the Reform of the Federation and Australia’s Taxation System

COAG acknowledged the importance of the federal system to Australia’s success as a nation. It supported a collegial approach to reviewing current arrangements with a view to reducing overlap and duplication in roles and responsibilities between governments and working together better in areas of shared responsibilities. COAG resolved this would contribute to the G20 objective to grow the global economy by improving the efficiency and effectiveness of the federation. This wide ranging review will be conducted in a spirit of partnership in order to achieve consensus as far as possible on reform directions.

COAG agreed that clearer lines of reporting and accountability to the public should result in better education, health and other social and economic outcomes for Australians, and more efficient and lower cost service delivery. Clarifying roles and responsibilities could involve significant reform in some areas, but would ensure taxpayer funds are better targeted and deliver better results for the Australian people. Greater clarity would also avoid the ‘blame game’ between governments if policy and services are poor.

Jurisdictions will work together to ensure there is a well-informed, open and constructive public debate about the need for change and about any potential changes to existing roles and responsibilities put forward through the Federation White Paper process. The main focus will be on health, early childhood learning, schools, vocational education and training, housing and homelessness.

Any change of roles and responsibilities will require governments to have certainty about appropriate revenues to fund their associated spending and service delivery responsibilities. The Federation and Tax Reform White Papers will therefore need to progress together.

Overseas Adoption

COAG noted the Commonwealth will fund a new service that will be consistent with Australia’s obligations under the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption. The Commonwealth service will work with existing state services to assist families and adoptees throughout the overseas adoption process, while recognising that eligibility rules for adoptions will remain the responsibility of the states.

Indigenous Affairs

COAG agreed jurisdictions need to work together to ensure Indigenous people have access to the same opportunities as non-Indigenous people.

All governments agreed that greater effort is required to meet our educational targets for Indigenous children and this will require commitment and integrated action at a community level. COAG agreed to further actions to improve Indigenous students’ school attendance and to share evidence of actions that work to improve school attendance. The Commonwealth will work bilaterally with states on:

  • more regular reporting of school attendance where there are significant attendance issues, so attendance remains a focus and evidence-based action is taken quickly if rates do not increase;
  • effective use of truancy measures, so parents and communities see a direct consequence if they fail to ensure their children attend school; and
  • aligning and integrating each government’s efforts.

COAG acknowledged there are already many accomplished teachers and principals working in regional and remote schools. COAG asked Education Ministers to report on strategies to attract and retain quality teachers and school leaders to regional and remote schools. A progress report on this, and school attendance, will be provided to COAG at its first meeting in 2015.

COAG noted Mr Andrew Forrest’s report to the Commonwealth, Creating Parity – The Forrest Review, on his review of Indigenous training and employment programmes. Jurisdictions noted his key finding that a decent education provides a strong basis for parity in employment outcomes.

The Forrest Review makes broad and ambitious recommendations to the Commonwealth on areas of Commonwealth, state and shared responsibility. COAG discussed priority areas and agreed to identify areas that would benefit from bilateral action, with agreements to be finalised by the end of the year.

COAG noted that the Commonwealth, the Northern Territory and Queensland will urgently investigate Indigenous land administration and land use to enable traditional owners to readily attract private sector investment and finance to develop their own land with new industries and businesses to provide jobs and economic advancement for Indigenous people. The Commonwealth, Northern Territory and Queensland will report on this issue to the first COAG meeting in 2015.

Deregulation

Reducing regulatory burden to free up business and individuals from government red tape remains a key priority for COAG. All jurisdictions are identifying reforms to reduce the regulatory burden in selected small business and manufacturing sectors, and will report on findings and actions to COAG in December 2014. COAG agreed to explore adopting, as a general principle, trusted international standards or risk assessment processes for systems, services and products, unless it can be demonstrated that there is good reason not to.

COAG also agreed to consider changes to the regulatory framework governing chemicals to improve its efficiency, with the Standing Committee on Chemicals to recommend a reform pathway to COAG by the end of 2014.

In higher education, all jurisdictions will ensure information is not already available before requesting data so that universities only need to provide higher education data to government once.

COAG reaffirmed the importance of addressing duplication in environmental approvals, while maintaining high environmental standards. It underlined the importance of implementing effective one-stop-shops as soon as possible.

National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS)

Trials of NDIS are now underway in New South Wales, Victoria, Western Australia, South Australia, Tasmania, the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory.

COAG noted reports from the Disability Reform Council (DRC) on the implementation of NDIS to date, and agreed the DRC would report to each COAG meeting on NDIS implementation, including management of costs and the transition to full scheme.

Infrastructure

Jurisdictions reaffirmed the importance of infrastructure to boost productivity and unlock economic growth, including in regional economies, and recognised the need for improved processes and project selection methodologies to get projects underway.

COAG noted a Commonwealth response to the Productivity Commission’s report on public infrastructure will be released by the end of the year. It will identify opportunities to improve the financing, governance and delivery of new infrastructure.

COAG also noted good progress is being made to agree asset sales or leases and new infrastructure under the $5 billion Asset Recycling Initiative. Agreements will be announced as they are made with each state. The Commonwealth, New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland announced their intention to conclude an agreement as soon as possible.

The Commonwealth signed agreements with New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, Western Australia, Tasmania and the Australian Capital Territory under the new $27 billion National Partnership Agreement on Land Transport Infrastructure. This funding will support freight rail and road projects that help deliver a safe, sustainable and efficient national transport system.

G20

COAG welcomed the focus of the G20 summit in Brisbane on measures to lift economic growth and create jobs, build economic and financial resilience, and strengthen global institutions. COAG noted that, if the G20 can increase its GDP by 2 per cent over expected forecasts over the next five years, it would deliver over $2 trillion to global GDP and create millions of jobs. COAG expressed its appreciation for the co-operation and resources being provided from jurisdictions to the Queensland Police Service to support security arrangements for the summit.

Royal Commission into the Home Insulation Programme

COAG noted the update on the Commonwealth’s interim response to the findings of the Royal Commission into the Home Insulation Programme (HIP). In particular, it noted the Royal Commission’s findings on ways to improve the safety of people working in roof cavities and raising awareness of the dangers involved.

COAG agreed work is required in this area to ensure the tragic deaths under the HIP are not repeated. It noted that some states have satisfactory arrangements and others have already taken action to address these issues. All states agreed to work cooperatively to ensure the safety of people working in roof cavities and consider what further action should be taken. A report will be provided to the next COAG meeting.

Gas pipeline connecting the Northern and Eastern Gas Markets

COAG supported the work being undertaken by the Northern Territory to establish a competitive process for the private sector to bring forward proposals for the construction and operation of a pipeline to connect the Northern and Eastern Gas Markets. COAG agreed that connecting these gas markets is the next step to developing a national gas grid and will contribute to the development of a more national and competitive domestic gas market, helping to improve supply security.

Ebola virus
As yet there is no confirmed case of Ebola in Australia, but COAG agreed all governments need to be prepared. COAG noted ongoing cooperation between the Commonwealth and states, to ensure any suspected case is identified immediately and dealt with appropriately. COAG agreed these arrangements are robust, and need to be continually updated.

COAG noted the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity, which recently opened in Melbourne as a national centre of excellence, and houses a coalition of infection and immunology experts to lead the fight against infectious diseases including Ebola.

10 October 2014

Transcript of the Council of Australian Governments press conference in Canberra.

PRIME MINISTER TONY ABBOTT: I’d like to thank my colleagues, my colleague heads of government, for the constructive work that we’ve done so far today. Obviously these are challenging times for our country, there are difficulties and uncertainties abroad. The great thing about our country is that we always rise to the challenges that we face and whatever the challenges are they are always best faced by a country which is strong, prosperous and united. This whole COAG process is about the different levels of government working constructively and cooperatively together to face the internal and external challenges that our country has to meet. We’ve had a very good discussion today but as always the objective of all of our discussions is to produce higher economic growth and more jobs. One of the key elements of our discussions today was our commitment to more and better infrastructure. As you know the recent Commonwealth Budget was, amongst other things, the biggest infrastructure budget in Commonwealth history. As you know I wish to be known as the infrastructure Prime Minister and I like to think that my colleague first Ministers are competing with each other to be known as the infrastructure Premiers – certainly together we want to build the 21st century infrastructure that our country so badly needs.

There were various other issues that we looked at in some depth today. We obviously talked about the need for constant cooperation and vigilance in internal and national security matters. We talked quite extensively about the appropriate response to some of the issues identified in the Forrest Review of indigenous employment. We talked about the upcoming White Paper on Reform of the Federation. From time to time inevitably there are issues on which we disagree but I do think that I can say that there was very constructive spirit today, a desire for all levels of government in this country to work together wherever we can to make a difference for the Australian people. Yes, we would like our federation to be in some ways less complex. We would like our federation to be less marked by overlap and duplication and that is one of the fundamental objectives of the White Paper process upon which we are embarked.

But we do know that whatever happens, different levels of government in this country will continue to work together constructively, collegially and cooperatively to solve the problems that we face.

So I thank my brother and sister first Minister colleagues and I might ask Campbell Newman, as the Leader of the Council of the Australian Federation to offer his thoughts.

PREMIER CAMPBELL NEWMAN: Thanks very much Prime Minister. Ladies and gentlemen today’s COAG meeting has been a very constructive and productive meeting and there really is a sense of collegiality in those deliberations. The two things particularly I think are most significant are firstly; that Australians should know that the commonwealth, its agencies, the AFP and the state and territory police services and police forces are working together very closely in these challenging times to protect the nation, to protect our families and we received briefings on the situation and obviously discussed preparations as well for G20 and I just want to assure people that there is no stone being left unturned in terms of doing the very best for our community and Australians should be reassured of that. We also reflected on the need to maintain that great sense of community harmony that we have in this wonderful multicultural country and there will be efforts of both the commonwealth and the states working to ensure that we maintain that community cohesion, again in some very challenging times. Turning to the White Paper on the Federation, this is something I think that is incredibly important and I believe that we now have a very clear path forward, and we had a very productive informal conversation this morning, actually over breakfast with the PM, we all want to make a difference here. It’s particularly important, why does it matter? I say to the man and woman in the street and particularly young people that our federation is a federation that works well in terms of a global comparison but it could be potentially made to work better. If we can make it work better we can get economic benefits, we can create more jobs, we can see government deliver services more efficiently and effectively and basically spend the taxpayers dollar more wisely. There are also great opportunities to improve that frontline service delivery. So for example in health and education particularly, I think ultimately resolving some of these issues can see the states and territories and the commonwealth do a better job for all Australian citizens. So we have a path forward for the White Paper and I think that’s an incredibly important initiative and probably in my view, putting aside the current challenges of the security situation, is probably the biggest single issue for COAG to deal with. Thank you.

PREMIER DENIS NAPTHINE: Thank you very much Prime Minister and it has been a very constructive and productive day. From Victoria’s perspective we appreciate the briefing on the security issues and particularly we want to highlight the $13.4 million that has been allocated for community engagement. We believe that working with our diverse multicultural community and particularly with our Islamic community, I think this is the best way to make our community safer in the long run, to celebrate our peaceful, harmonious, multicultural community. I also welcome the decision with regard to infrastructure funding. We appreciate the funding provided in the budget for asset recycling but we also appreciate the work done today so that interest earned can be used for more productive assets into the future for infrastructure for states to drive jobs, drive our economy and grow the economy of our states and Australia.

PREMIER JAY WEATHERILL: Thank you Prime Minister. We appreciated the briefings we received from commonwealth agencies about the steps taken to keep Australians safe and we were reassured in those briefings. I think that I speak for everybody when we say that we want to send the clearest possible message to our Islamic communities, here in Australia, to say that they are valued citizens of Australia. Our thoughts in particular are with women in those communities who because of the nature of their dress may attract some attention and we are aware of some negative attention that they’ve received. We want to commit ourselves to reaching out to those people that have perhaps been the subject of unfair criticism and say that you are welcome, you are a valued part of our community. I want to say just one thing about the White Paper process. When we came to the last COAG meeting we had an agreed process, we then had a federal budget that left us all $80 billion short in terms of our health and education funding. That’s something that we continue to agitate with the commonwealth, it’s something which amounts in our view to a breach of agreement and is something that’s not sustainable for states and territories. Having said that, today’s resolution is that in the future there will be a joint process and we hope that the processes will be joint processes in the future.

KATY GALLAGHER: Thank you Prime Minister and again I support the comments that have been previously made by other first Ministers. I think the briefings on counter terrorism and security were very useful and did certainly I think ensures the Australian communities safety is first and foremost in those agencies, actions and the work that’s underway. I think it also made it very clear that for the political leadership of this country our focus needs to be in the area that Jay spoke around, around ensuring community cohesion, ensuring that we are providing the leadership that’s needed to ensure that there aren’t particular communities targeted during this time of security uncertainty. So it was good to hear everyone spoke very passionately about that. In relation to the Federation White Paper, again, I sense there is a strong will around the table on the federation and tax reform White Paper to really see what opportunities there are to improve the federation and the federal financial arrangements of the country. But with opportunities come risk and I think everybody has those in front of their minds as well. So there’s a lot more work to do but at least the conversation is being prepared to be had. The only other thing I’d say is on the NDIS, the reports on the NDIS and from the ACT’s point of view we’re very happy with how NDIS is being implemented. I think you know this is a massive change. We’ve given a lot of responsibility to the NDIA and I think we should acknowledge the hard work that’s done by that agency and the board in implementing this massive change and from the ACT’s point of view, we’re very happy with how it’s going. It’s early days but I think credit where credit is due and it is to all of those people who’ve been prepared to take a risk and get involved in NDIS and it’s working well.

FELICITY-ANN LEWIS: Thank you Prime Minister. I guess I want to reiterate the comments made by the first Minister’s with the issues around the counter terrorism provisions that have been undertaken. I think like the previous speakers have said, the issues around community harmony and particularly for us at the Local Government level, who are very much at the interface on a daily basis with the citizenship ceremonies and other festivals and celebrations and just the front counter engagement with people across all cultural groups, I have also heard stories of women, particularly being targeted in our shopping malls and so on. So we certainly want to reach out to all of the citizens in the community and you know talk to them about the fact that we need to all live together, be respectful of each other and try and continue to develop the fabulously multicultural community that we have. I guess the other issue for us, the Federation White Paper, is one as I mentioned at the last COAG meeting that sees for Local Government an opportunity for us to talk with the other spheres of government about how Local Government will actually be identified and actually realistically portrayed in the way we operate and it’s very different to what the constitution currently identifies as the way that the governance of the country actually was outlined back 114 years ago, so for us in our failed attempt at a referendum last year, I think for us we’re hoping that we’ll get to see, particularly an alignment with the taxation White Paper as well, those fiscal challenges that we have and the opportunities that will present. But as Katy said I mean with these kinds of things there are always risks as well, so certainly we want to be part of that and I thank the Prime Minister for allowing us to be part of that and on the steering committee and we look forward to hearing more about the steering committee that you’re working on bringing forward as well to get the community engaged with this process. Prime Minister it’s my last COAG so I just want to thank you and previous Prime Minister Gillard and the first Ministers for their acceptance and warmth and friendship over the last two years. It’s been a pleasure to be here and to represent Local Government. Thank you.

PREMIER MIKE BAIRD: Thanks Prime Minister. I think the word that comes to my mind on the back of the discussion today is partnership. I think what we saw in the counter terrorism measures was a clear collective will around the table on working together on partnership. What we’ve seen was an unbelievable effort by our agencies today, a deep appreciation of the effort and work that has been undertaken and a firm commitment to continue that partnership because it is critical it happens, it is happening and it’s happening in a way I think that every Australian could be very proud and certainly the Prime Minister has stressed that. This is something that we need to do together. At the same time, on the issue that’s been raised, in terms of community cohesion, a partnership, the Federal Government has allocated additional resources, it is something we all welcomed and something that all the states and territories will come alongside. We need to ensure that harmony is maintained where communities are hurting, and they are, we need to ensure we provide an opportunity to help them and to ensure that harmony is at the core of what we do and certainly not fear. So that’s a positive response. On the matters of white papers, in terms of taxation and federation, again, it is partnership. We have challenges. There are many challenges we face – fiscally, service delivery, but ultimately the way we can achieve reform is in partnership by doing it together – and that was a commitment of the Prime Minister, it was a commitment around the table that this is a genuine process and a real opportunity to undertake meaningful reform. It’s something that we look forward to with relish and we’re very excited to participate in and we certainly believe partnership will achieve many things rather than try to do it alone.

PREMIER COLIN BARNETT: I’ll choose some different topics. First one; I was pleased today that we basically concluded and agreed that the commonwealth would have a single agency for handling overseas adoptions, that is sensible. Personally I’ve made the case that I think that agencies should ultimately take responsibility for surrogacy. The states have got no opportunity or no prospect of managing that in a sensible way, though I acknowledge that that’s probably an issue for a little bit further down the track. You would be disappointed if I didn’t raise the GST as I have done on every COAG I have been to. I just make one comment about that, and I know it’s probably sounded over the years as a little bit like a whinge from the west, today I made the point and I think I got some understanding that the GST which was introduced to be a source of stability to the states and a source of stability in commonwealth state relations, has now become the greatest source of instability. Now, Western Australia has been adversely affected over recent years but the point I would emphasise today is that the system has failed to the extent that unfortunately Campbell your state is next in the firing line, Queensland will lose funding and then New South Wales will lose funding. So I would like to think I might have made some progress in terms of eventually winning the argument, the challenge now is to put in a stable system of funding – otherwise we’re going to have I think a fair bit of chaos from one state to another in a cyclical pattern.

PREMIER WILL HODGMAN: Thanks, Prime Minister: My commitment to Tasmanians when I come to these meetings is to work sensibly and constructively to get good outcomes for my state, not to use it as a platform for political grandstanding. I believe that Tasmanians expect that from me and my commitment is to work in partnership with my federal and state and territory colleagues to get good outcomes and we have discussed a wide range of issues today. Not all of which have been mentioned at this forum so far, but a number of which will be, in my view, positive developments out of today’s meeting as well. Tasmania is a state that needs to be open for business and the new government, just a few weeks after delivering our first budget, is determined to work in partnership and to invest strategically and to secure good partnerships.

The infrastructure partnership we have just signed will mean about $800 million in road funding into Tasmania to improve our road networks. That is an important investment in unlocking Tasmania’s economic potential. I am very interested, in fact came here to seek assurances about our safety as the island state and to be assured by federal agencies that we, as an island state, are indeed under constant supervision and receiving the necessary support and I was pleased to receive that today. As Tasmania’s minister for Aboriginal affairs I was really pleased to see significant progress at a national level and to understand how that might be applied to my state and to indigenous people in Tasmania via the Forrest review. There are some very important ideas for us to consider. Some recommendations to contemplate that I think can deliver broad benefit to our community and especially the indigenous community.

CHIEF MINISTER ADAM GILES: Prime Minister, thanks very much for the opportunity today and thanks very much for your leadership over the security of the nation, I think it’s been an outstanding job, both you and the security forces in this country. You should be congratulated on that. I think the update we were provided today was sound advice for us. It is a challenge for all Australians. We have to get it right 100 per cent of the time. The bad guys have to get it right once. So, congratulations to date, we all need to remain very diligent in the way we do our job.

In regards to the white paper, that presents an opportunity for the Northern Territory to raise particular issues around the future of the Northern Territory in terms of statehood, an opportunity for us to talk about the Aboriginal Land Rights Act and the ownership or the management of land tenure for 50 per cent of the jurisdiction. It also gives us an opportunity to talk about the ownership of national parks in the Northern Territory, something that is really important to Territorians in how we move forward progressively on an economic sense. The discussion around indigenous affairs allowed myself the opportunity to again talk about those similar issues, to talk about how if we want to advance indigenous Australians within the Northern Territory’s jurisdiction, we have got to stop looking at things through a social prism and start looking at them through an economic prism. We’ve got to reflect on things such as since the commencement of the Aboriginal Land Rights Act in 1976, no new mines of any national significance have been created. Only two new hydrocarbon leases have actually been introduced in 2014 – nothing for 38 years. The Land Rights Act has held Aboriginal people back in the Northern Territory. We continue to hear about it, we continue to hear negative statistics about it. If we are going to be serious about Aboriginal reform in COAG, we have to address these fundamental issues. So that was an opportunity to talk about that.

I would like to thank COAG first ministers for their support around the developments of constructing a gas pipeline between the Northern Territory and Moomba in South Australia. An opportunity to start to create a wholesale domestic gas market which can meet the needs of both state and territory jurisdictions on the eastern sea board but also start to support the manufacturing industry who face certain challenges around increases in domestic gas prices on the eastern sea board. We are working hard to be able to bring that to realisation through financing through the private sector and to have COAG’s support to be able to do that, in principle I think represents a good solid state where we can start moving towards nation building infrastructure rather than just doing things such as putting shelters over basketball courts as we saw in the Northern Territory under the building the revolution programme.

Thank you.

ABBOTT: Thank you, Adam. Thank you, colleagues.

Are there any questions?

QUESTION: The communique mentions that the state parliaments or state governments have committed to introduce amendments to their parliaments in relation to security laws. Are you, Prime Minister, or any of the Premiers able to give any clarity on what sorts of amendments you’re looking at in the security space that the state parliaments should bring into effect?

ABBOTT: If you look at the security laws that the Howard Government introduced from 2003 onwards, they were all mirrored in the state – relevant state – legislation and my hope and expectation is that the new security laws that we are bringing in at the moment will likewise be mirrored in state legislation. So, we’re all in this together. This is not a party political issue. This is a national security issue. This is an issue of keeping Australians safe and we all want to ensure that and the best way to do so is to make sure that there are no loopholes that can be exploited by people who would do us harm and a harmonisation of security laws is very important.

Andrew?

QUESTION: My question is to both Mike Baird and to Campbell Newman. You have heard from your WA colleague, he says that your states are next in line. Are you willing conscripts to Colin Barnett’s war on the GST? And Will Hodgman, you can jump in whenever you like.

ABBOTT: But Andrew, if I may say so, this was not your bunfight over money that I know makes great sport for the media, but which doesn’t make for a very constructive government. We all know that there are issues with horizontal fiscal equalisation. We all know that there are issues with vertical fiscal imbalance. The important thing is to address these things in a calm and measured and collegial way and that is what this white paper process is about. I hope at the end of the white paper process that we have a system which is more rational, more transparent and no less fair than the existing system. We all appreciate that in the end the stronger states will in a sense allow for the less strong states. The question is getting an arrangement which is transparent and fair. Maybe the current arrangement is fair but it is certainly isn’t transparent and these are the sorts of things that we need to explore as part of the white paper process.

BAIRD: The Prime Minister is absolutely right. We have a forum to discuss them. We are on the record for a considerable period supporting earnings per capita. That is something that makes a lot of sense and it gives much more stability to your budgeting and that’s really what Colin is talking about. He forgot to say that WA did for a considerable period get a large donation from New South Wales. That is the issue. It is the stability in your budgeting and that is something that can be addressed as the Prime Minister said as part of the white paper process.

NEWMAN: I think Colin’s point is well made and it is recognised and the processes that we have outlined for the white paper and for the federation and the tax white paper allow us to work through those things. But frankly, if you ask me what keeps me awake at night, or my treasurer Tim Nicholls, it is dealing with the fact that right now we pay $4 billion a year on the accumulated debt that we have inherited and the asset leasing programme we announced this week will see that reduced by 25-30 per cent, that interest bill. Yes, the GST is significant but as a here and now, that is the thing that we have got to deal with and we’re thinking about, if I may say so. We structurally have to deal with the whole HFE thing and the GST. Colin is right but we have a process in place now I think to deal with that.

ABBOTT: The point I keep making, Andrew – whenever we have these issues thrown at us – is, sure, they should be dealt with. They have got to be dealt with fairly. They have got to be dealt with in a way which doesn’t disadvantage the areas of our country that are less economically strong but, in the end, everything goes better if you have got a strong and growing economy. Jobs and growth – that is what we’re all focused on.

QUESTION: Prime Minister, you said that you discussed the Forrest report but you have already said that that won’t be implemented in full. What recommendations were agreed upon today and will we see any immediate changes in the running of indigenous affairs?

ABBOTT: Well, we had a discussion today, not a “let’s go through each recommendation in detail and say yes or no.” There is a Commonwealth process in place which we are currently going through. Once we have done that we then need to go through a process with the states and that is going to happen very soon and at some point in the not too distant future there will be a public response which will involve all of us in some respects to the Forrest report. What we do need to ensure is that much more in the future than in the past is coordination and consistency between different levels of government. All of us are full of good intentions here. There has been no end of good intentions over the last 30 or 40 years and there has been a hell of a lot of very worthy programmes and projects, but all too often – as everyone along this bench knows – you have got one lot doing a whole lot of useful things, another lot doing a whole lot of useful things and we can quite often end up unconsciously, subconsciously, inadvertently working against each other. Sometimes, we all end up running around like headless chooks here rather than making headway together. So, there needs to be a lot more coordination in all areas of indigenous policy in the future than there has been in the past.

QUESTION: Prime Minister, on health – we know there are differences on health funding in the out years and I think I heard the Victorian Premier on the way in this morning saying he had an agreement with the former government on this issue and we know that the Premier believes incoming governments should honour deals that have been done by a current or former government. What have you agreed today – can you clear this up – in terms of how you’re going to progress this?

NAPTHINE: My comments were about education.

QUESTION: Ok, but on health we know there is a disagreement there as well. So what have actually – because you did talk about health today – what have you agreed in terms of the discussion that will go forward from here?

ABBOTT: What we have agreed on is a white paper process going forward. I know that there was a lot of reaction to some elements of the recent Budget and I think that everyone along this bench accepts that in the end each government will do what each government feels it has to do in particular circumstances. But, obviously, our federation will work better if there is as much communication as possible and over time if governments can be more sovereign in their own sphere. We only had that problem arising out of the Budget because Commonwealth Governments fund public schools and public hospitals, but we don’t actually run public schools and public hospitals. Now, we don’t have a prescriptive answer. What we have is a process. And I want to say about the process that there are some basic parameters within which it will work. First of all, we don’t want to see any increase in the overall burden of tax. Second, we don’t want to see any reduction in the overall level of service and very importantly, things will only change if there is a substantial consensus, because while there are many aspects of our federation that do leave something to be desired, it is still, by any normal consideration, a strong and successful federation.

QUESTION: You all meet today with the latest constitutional survey showing that faith in the Federal Government has fallen in the last two years and faith in state governments isn’t that great either. Why do you think the public continues to lose faith in the Federal Government? And I wonder if any of the Premiers have any view on why the states aren’t doing a particularly well? I wonder if you sought any advice from the local government people who seem to be doing better?

ABBOTT: Well, I think these surveys are lagging indicators, if I may say so! Look, at any time, there are always going to be sections of our community that are disappointed with government, whether it is local government, state government, national government, there are always going to be people who are disappointed with government because, let’s face it, we cannot do everything that everyone would like us to do immediately. We just can’t. What we have to strive to do is to effectively meet the challenges of our nation and I have got to say that I think that this Government, not perfectly, but with far more success than our critics might have conceded, we have repealed the carbon tax, we have repealed the mining tax. We have more or less stopped the boats. We are working more effectively than the critics would concede to bring the Budget back into balance and I think over time, if government is competent and trustworthy, the public will respond appropriately. Now, I’m certainly not in the business of panicking in the face of opinion polls, and look, you ask people do you trust government and the typical Australian reaction is to say, “Of course not”. But I think that over time competent and trustworthy government will build the sort of public respect that we would all like to see.

QUESTION: Could I ask a question, perhaps if Premiers Newman or Baird would like to comment, too, on a tangential issue – the decision by China overnight to place tariffs on Metallurgical and coking coal. Prime Minister, do you see this as an impediment towards the FTA and does anyone have any revenue concerns, lowering exports, et cetera?

ABBOTT: Well, I think this is a sign of how valuable the FTA will be to our country should we secure it in the next few months because this is the kind of hiccup in our biggest and most important trading relationship that we just don’t want or need. I think that we will work with the Chinese to get to the bottom of what seems to have happened overnight but at least as important as that is trying to ensure that this vital relationship is put on the strongest possible long-term footing and that is what the Free Trade Agreement is all about.

QUESTION: Does that mean that that’s now become another sticking point in the final stages of that FTA process?

ABBOTT: No. When I last spoke to Andrew Robb about this – and it was a few days ago because I haven’t had a chance to talk to him about this particular issue – he was confident that things were on track. What we want is an agreement which secures better access to Chinese markets for our exports, particularly our agricultural exports, in return for giving Australian consumers lower cost access to Chinese imports to this country. Now, I think it is clearly in the interests of both countries that this agreement be finalised and finalised soon. From time to time, there are always hiccups in trade relationships – even the very best of relationships – sometimes they have hiccups but the more reliable, the more solid the foundation, the less likely these hiccups are and that is why this Free Trade Agreement is very important.

QUESTION: In your discussion about indigenous affairs, did you touch on the referendum and where are you up to on that?

ABBOTT: Michelle, I did give my colleague first ministers an update on where I think it is all going. I don’t want to say publicly anything about that at this stage because if we are to achieve the outcome all of us want, it is important that there be a high level of bipartisanship and it’s also important that there be a high level of discussion not just with the indigenous community but certainly including the indigenous community and there are some discussions that need to take place before I think I can be too prescriptive about what the next steps are, suffice to say that I am determined that we will have this referendum. I am determined that we will soon set a date for the referendum and I am determined that we should try as hard as we humanly can to conduct the referendum discussion in a constructive way; that we should try to avoid the kind of high-pitched shouting which sometimes mars public debates in this country. Over recent months and weeks, we have managed to have, I think, a very constructive bipartisanship on national security. For some years now, we have been able to avoid a hyper-partisanship in indigenous affairs and I certainly want that to continue in the weeks and months and years ahead.

QUESTION: Do you want to settle on a form of words before you set the date?

ABBOTT: No. I think it is important to set a date because I think that will help to crystallise the debate. There are obviously a number of ongoing processes, most particularly the process which is being led by Ken Wyatt’s parliamentary committee. Those processes will continue for a period of time but I think prior to those processes concluding, we certainly can set a date so that everyone knows that we are serious about trying to make this happen.

QUESTION: [inaudible] the date is beyond the next election?

ABBOTT: I’m just not going to get into further discussion, Michelle.

QUESTION: What have you agreed to in relation to setting up a single agency for handling overseas adoptions? How will that work in with state laws?

ABBOTT: We are not into changing laws here, so much as trying to ensure that the process of overseas adoption is much easier than it currently is. At the moment, if you want to adopt, you typically go to a state adoption agency, you consider the issue generally and at some point, often enough, you will decide that you are going to have a go at overseas adoption because that is more prospective than local adoption. Then, as things stand, you have got to navigate, largely unaided, a thicket of Commonwealth agencies, and so what we want to establish is a Commonwealth agency, it might be a governmental agency or it might be an NGO, but a Commonwealth agency one way or another that will basically take people by the hand and lead them from agency to agency; lead them through the process of getting the relevant approvals for overseas adoption so that it can happen more quickly, I hope less expensively and certainly with much less heartache than is so often the case. This is basically about making it easier to adopt. It is not about usurping the rights of the states to set the rules about who can adopt and under what particular circumstances. It is not about watering down standards under the various international conventions for the adoption of people from overseas. It is about making it easier for people to navigate the federal agencies that need to be onside in order to successfully complete an overseas adoption.

QUESTION: Prime Minister, when do you want that set up?

ABBOTT: Well, as soon as possible – as soon as possible, within months…

QUESTION: By the end of the year, possibly?

ABBOTT: We have got a very busy timetable and I think it would be unrealistic to ask of us to do it by the end of the year but hopefully in the first quarter of next year.

QUESTION: [inaudible]

ABBOTT: We haven’t got to the stage of costing this but the costs will be relatively modest.

QUESTION: Prime Minister, Mr Giles raised some issues about the operation of the Native Title Act in the Northern Territory and the fact that there has been few petrochemical leases written. Is that something that will be reviewed as part of the white paper process?

ABBOTT: This is the Northern Australia white paper process and yes, it will be. Look, we all want to ensure that rights are respected but one of the things that was coming through to me loud and clear from my recent visit to East Arnhem Land is that the vast majority of indigenous people, at least in East Arnhem Land, and I would say in Cape York as well where I have spent a lot of time recently, they want land to be an economic asset as well as a spiritual and cultural and environmental asset. This is something that certainly does need to be addressed as part of the Northern Australia process.

QUESTION: A question for Premiers Baird and Napthine. To be clear, years five and six of the Gonski funding, are you still pursuing those as broken contracts or are you happy to leave that discussion to the white paper as the Prime Minister seems to be suggesting?

BAIRD: That is the process that has been agreed. There is a range of challenges we face, responsibilities which obviously we have articulated, fiscal and that discussion is going to take place as part of that process. It is an important one. Our position is well documented on that issue, as is Victoria’s, but we obviously need to get to a position, as the Prime Minister said, where we are constructively engaging on the issues that matter and certainly the framework for the white paper does that perfectly. So, we will be putting all of our concerns and all of our passions and all of our ideas into this process. I think we need to be very clear. This is not a tick-the-box exercise. This is a genuine opportunity to make some significant reform to issues that matter, to families and communities across this country. It is a responsibility that every single person here is very excited to participate in and we look forward doing that.

NAPTHINE: Can I respond by saying we believe we have signed a six-year agreement. We will be pursuing that agreement to the full. We believe that should be ongoing and quite separately there is a further debate about the issues in the white paper and the white paper may overtake that discussion but the white paper is a broader review of the whole arrangements between federal and state and funding arrangements. I think it is a great opportunity, 100-plus years since federation for us to have this root and branch examination of how we can do it better and I think the Prime Minister said very well that our federation by world standards works very well but it is an opportunity to look at where we can do it even better and I think the white paper provides that broader review, that broader opportunity, but in the meantime, for the education of children in Victoria, we have a six-year agreement. We have funding agreed for the first four years between the federal and state governments. We will continue to pursue the fifth and sixth year in the best interests of students in Victoria.

QUESTION: Prime Minister, [inaudible] one stop shops for environmental approvals. Do you think that a single line in a COAG communique is going to convince any of the crossbench senators to change their minds on this? Have you asked or have any of the first ministers offered their help in negotiations in the Senate?

ABBOTT: We have actually achieved pretty substantial progress on one stop shops. There is a lot which is now being handled by the states under the kind of memoranda of understanding which are typical between different levels of government. There are a number of matters which do need to be advanced by legislation and we will keep pursuing that legislation because we want these one stop shops to be as comprehensive and as complete as possible to encourage investment and to create jobs. So, that’s why we are doing this: to encourage investment, to create jobs, to boost economic growth. But very substantial progress has already been made without legislation. We will continue to make progress without legislation, but obviously we do want the legislation because if the one stop shop is to be as complete as possible, legislation is necessary.

QUESTION: Premier Newman, Dr Bruce Flegg has been cleared by Queensland’s corruption watchdog today of any wrongdoing. Should he stand now be able to stand for pre-selection in the seat of Moggill or anywhere else?

NEWMAN: I’ve got a couple of thoughts about that. The first one is that Dr Flegg was the subject of quite scurrilous accusations by the former Labor government going back three and a half years ago. That is where this all started. Finally, after three and a half years, we have seen again that the 2011/12 Labor Party state campaign was based on smear and innuendo and I welcome and applaud the clearance of Dr Flegg by the Crime and Corruption Commission. That’s good that that cloud has been lifted. As to a review of the decision of the LNP last Friday, that is a matter for the LNP executive. It is a highly democratic organisation. The state executive are elected by the 14,000 men and women that are members of our party and the members of the state executive have a legitimate right to assess the people who go forward under our party banner. So it is a matter for them. I have indicated previously that I support all my MPs if they are prepared to fight for jobs in Queensland, to fight to sort out the state of frontline services and to make sure that it is a safe state. So, Dr Flegg has filled those criteria and my position hasn’t changed in the last seven days.

QUESTION: So will you be urging the executive to possibly rethink?

NEWMAN: I have made my position pretty clear. I haven’t changed my position in the last seven days. That is a matter for the state executive. I support my parliamentary team.

QUESTION: Mr Newman, will the one stop shop issue come up at the Palmer inquiry and what is the latest position from the Queensland Government’s point of view? Are you going to appear before that inquiry? Are you going to give them access to documents and officials or are you taking the sort of position that Victoria took some years ago where it didn’t cooperate with such an inquiry?

NEWMAN: Let me be very clear that this inquiry is only happening because of the Australian Labor Party. I go back to what I just said about Dr Flegg – they made unfounded accusations against him all those years ago, and what we’re seeing now is a politically motivated inquiry, basically on the say so of the Australian Labor Party. Let’s be very clear about it. There’s a lot of talk about the independents and the minor parties making this happen. I place the responsibility for this inquiry at the feet of the Australian Labor Party. There are many things that this inquiry may look at. I note that the Greens have talked about coal seam gas approvals. I note some political commentators often get a bit mixed up about who actually gave those approvals. Those approvals were almost entirely made by the former Labor state government. Indeed, my opponent, it’s expected in the seat of Ashgrove, was the relevant minister. So, look, that’s all I will say about the inquiry today. It is a politically motivated thing. I think people see it for what it is. But what people haven’t seen, and I think it does need to be seen in these terms, it is the work of the Australian Labor Party, and they are responsible for it.

QUESTION: So why wouldn’t your government cooperate with them?

NEWMAN: I’m not giving out a position today. People will have to wait and see what we do.

ABBOTT: Ok, thank you so much.

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