The real story about Australia’s national cabinet is that no such constitutional entity exists. Australia does not have a national cabinet today and it never has had a national government in the past.
In view of this, the Morrison government has done remarkably well in giving the impression of greater unity in the nation than that which, in fact, exists.
On March 13 last year, Scott Morrison announced that the government had “resolved … to form a national cabinet to deal with the national response to the coronavirus”.
The Prime Minister said it would be made up of “the premiers, chief ministers and myself”. The Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet advised that the new body would operate under longstanding conventions of cabinet government, including the guiding principles of collective responsibility and solidarity.
The national cabinet has worked reasonably well across the past year, especially in view of its constitutional limitations.
As Prime Minister, Morrison chooses his ministers from members of the Coalition’s joint (the Liberal Party and Nationals) partyroom. All cabinet ministers agree to act consistent with the principles of collective responsibility and all commit to abiding by cabinet secrecy.
Sure, from time to time ministers of Coalition and Labor governments alike breach cabinet rules and understandings. But, for the most part, cabinet solidarity works well enough.
The national cabinet, however, is different. Currently it consists of four Coalition leaders (federal, NSW, South Australia, Tasmania) and five Labor leaders (Victoria, Queensland, Western Australia, the Northern Territory and the ACT).
What’s more, the Prime Minister does not appoint the members of the national cabinet, other than himself.
Then there is the fact the national cabinet cannot introduce legislation covering all of the nation with respect to areas that fall within the purview of state and territory administrations.
This is of particular relevance at the time of pandemic — since the states and territories are primarily responsible for key areas of administration such as health, policing and education.
In other words, if the various non-federal governments decide to close borders, introduce lockdowns and shut down schools, there is nothing the federal government can do about it.
Australia is not much different to similar Western democracies. The powers of the central government are also limited in Britain, Canada and the US. Only the small nations of Ireland and New Zealand have centralised administrations.
Still, as the cliche goes, it is what it is. And it’s not too bad. There have been disputes over some border closures, with Morrison and Josh Frydenberg along with NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian in favour of freer internal movements and the rest in favour of harsh lockdowns even when there is little COVID-19 community infection throughout the nation.
Since Federation in 1901, Australia has faced five potential crises, namely World War I (1914-18), the Spanish flu pandemic (1918-20), the Depression (1929-33), World War II (1939-45) and the COVID-19 pandemic. Apart from the Depression, Australia was not particularly united in meeting the various challenges.
During World War I, Australia was deeply divided over conscription for overseas service. The Labor Party split in November 1916 over this and its former leader Billy Hughes went on to lead the non-Labor Nationalist Party to election victories in November 1917, December 1919 and December 1922.
However, Hughes failed in October 1916 and December 1917 (when leading Labor and the Nationalists) in plebiscites seeking support of Australians for conscription to re-enforce the Australian Imperial Force.
There is a prevailing myth that Australia had a national government (including a national cabinet) during World War II. Not so. As prime minister, Robert Menzies declared war on Germany in September 1939 as a consequence of Britain’s decision, under the leadership of Neville Chamberlain, to go to war against Adolf Hitler and his Nazi regime.
In May 1940, Winston Churchill succeeded Chamberlain as prime minister and decided to preside over an all-party coalition comprising the Conservative Party, the Labour Party and the Liberals. It survived until the end of hostilities in May 1945.
There was no such national unity in Australia — at the government level at least. In the early years of his wartime administration, Menzies wanted to establish a national government. But Labor in opposition, led by John Curtin, declined the offer.
Later, when Labor came to office in October 1941, Curtin as prime minister did not invite the opposition into a national government. All this is thoroughly examined in Paul Hasluck’s two volumes in the official war history series Australia in the War of 1939-1945.
As Hasluck wrote of the period after the August 1943 elections, which Labor won convincingly, “the Australian people were not influenced by any pleas about the need for an all-party government in wartime”. The same had been true of the Depression.
Joseph Lyons led the United Australia Party (the predecessor of the Liberal Party) to victories over Labor in December 1931, September 1934 and October 1937 without a national government — before dying in office shortly before the outbreak of hostilities. Whereas Britain had a national government throughout much of the 1930s.
There have been few leaks from Australia’s national cabinet. However, it would appear that there is tension between the federal government and NSW on one hand and the rest of national cabinet on the other over problems of border closures.
The Morrison government has been the recipient of criticism from sections of the right of Australian politics over its alleged failure to open internal borders to the free movement of people and goods. The problem is there is nothing he can do about it.
In its decision in November last year on Palmer v Western Australia, the High Court held that the border restrictions imposed by the West Australian government were not inconsistent with section 92 of the Constitution, at least during a time of pandemic or epidemic.
A national government could have ensured open borders. But Australia has only what is termed a national cabinet, with all the limitations involved in such a circumstance.