Thursday Dec 07, 2023

State premiers take reform push to new take on national cabinet

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Repairing a national electricity market to ensure reliable supply, increasing health funding and streamlining the federation will all feature high on the agenda when Prime Minister Anthony Albanese meets with state and territory leaders today.

During the pandemic, the Morrison government convened a “national cabinet” with state and territory leaders. Mr Albanese’s office is instead calling Friday’s forum a First Ministers Meeting, in a likely sign the focus of intergovernmental meetings post-COVID will return to big picture reform.

One issue up for debate will be whether to follow the lead of Western Australia and establish their own energy reserves to ensure energy security and lower prices.

State leaders have been roundly critical of the National Electricity Market, shut down this week amid accusations power generators had brought the nation close to blackouts by pulling electricity from sale to raise prices.

SA Premier Peter Malinauskas said on Thursday that the state’s Parliament stood ready to pass any legislation needed to begin reform of the energy market.

south australia covid rules
SA Premier Peter Malinauskas is pushing for more investment in energy security. Photo: AAP

“We’re more than happy to work expeditiously as a government, as a state Parliament, to pass any law reform that is required to the [national electricity market],” he said.

The Premier won an election on a platform of building a government-owned hydrogen processing plant, pitched as an investment in energy security after a state-wide blackout in 2016.

Electricity reservations

Mr Malinauskas stressed there was no option presenting as a quick fix, but said the WA model of gas reservation deserved consideration.

“I think we should be looking to Western Australia to see how their energy needs are being met,” he said.

“They have a domestic gas reservation policy and the sky’s not falling in and, in fact, arguably, they’re in a better position than the rest of the country.

“There’s a potential that should be examined closely.”

WA’s domestic gas reservation policy accounts for about 50 per cent of its power needs including electricity generation; the state government reserves about 15 per cent of gas available for export for its domestic market.

State Labor premiers who were Mr Albanese’s pre-election allies will now be pushing him in government to deliver on an evergreen point of contention in Commonwealth-state relations – increasing hospital funding.

The Prime Minister will face demands to extend an extra $5 billion in temporary funding, brought in to cover the surge in demand for services during the pandemic, but also for more fundamental reform of a jointly funded hospital system which premiers say is overstretched.

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews said his counterparts would unite behind a push for a return to a “true partnership” and the Commonwealth assuming 50 per cent of hospital funding responsibility.

Funding remedy

The states also want the federal government to lift a 6.5 per cent cap on yearly health budget growth, which state leaders say is preventing vital catch-up investments.

“I will not settle for this Commonwealth government proceeding with Scott Morrison’s cutbacks,” Mr Andrews told reporters in Melbourne.

Health funding is set to feature high on the agenda at the First Ministers Meeting. Photo: Getty

The Commonwealth funds about 45 per cent of hospital expenditure, down from the 50-50 split under former prime minister Kevin Rudd.

Mr Albanese said there was “nothing new” in requests for greater federal involvement in hospital funding and that he was operating within post-pandemic fiscal restraints.

“We are not in a position to do everything we would like to do immediately,” he said.

Labour mobility will be pushed by NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet, who argues that skilled migration must be increased to boost the state’s economy, and Mark McGowan, who wants more Australians to head west.

Mr Albanese said he would also seek to expand the new intergovernmental forum, tentatively titled the Meeting of First Ministers, to include local councils – a likely hint at his agenda.

The Prime Minister advocates reform of the federation including the standardisation of planning laws across Australia’s three tiers of government.

Boosting economic productivity with better land release and planning laws that get infrastructure projects going has long been an enthusiasm of the Prime Minister’s, dating back to his time as Infrastructure Minister.

“As we emerge from the pandemic, we need to look at how we grow the economy stronger,” he said on Thursday. “I want productivity to be front and centre.”


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