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A streamline federal cabinet

February 27, 2011

At the moment, there are twenty people in the “cabinet”, or inner ministry, of our federal government. These are the important jobs, where high profile and hopefully talented politicians take charge of important areas of governance. Some of these are well known, such as Wayne Swan as Treasurer and Kevin Rudd as Foreign Minister… but even the lower profile cabinet members have a lot of responsibility. In addition, there are another ten in the “outer ministry”, and another twelve as “parliamentary secretaries”.

I think the cabinet should be shrunk to ten portfolios, with ten senior ministers in charge, supported by ten junior ministers (one for each area). This would allow the federal government to concentrate on doing their core job more effectively while reducing their meddling in areas where they should not be involved. These are my suggested federal cabinet portfolios:

Prime Minister — This position is pretty self-evident. The PM takes ultimate responsibility for all decisions of the government, manages the strategy & priorities of government, and is our representative on the world stage.

Treasurer — In my streamline federal cabinet, the Treasury position would include the roles currently done by Finance, Industrial Relations, and Industry. Treasury and Finance used to be a single department, and in most governments around the world (as well as in Australian states) there is just the one such position. In a capitalist country, there is no need for an Industry department, and anything that needs to be kept from Industry could be better managed by the hard-heads at Treasury (or at the State level). While industrial relations are a very important part of the economy, there is no need for them to be separate from the rest of economic management, and anyway they should be primarily a State responsibility. Some Trade issues (such as tariff levels) could also be included here.

Foreign Minister — Some of the most obvious important roles for the federal government are the ones focused on the outside world, such as foreign affairs. I would include in this portfolio any issues of trade and tourism not covered by the Treasury (such as bilateral and multilateral trade negotiations).

Defence — The first responsibility of a federal government is to ensure that our country can defend itself. This doesn’t necessarily mean that we have to throw never-ending buckets of money at defence. Instead, if the government were able to concentrate on their core responsibilities (like Defence) hopefully they would be able to achieve more outcomes while wasting fewer resources. I would include “Veteran Affairs” in this portfolio (though the payments themselves could be decentralised to State governments).

Immigration — The third (and final) of my foreign-focused portfolios would be Immigration, including border control.

Attorney-General — All governments need to have their pet lawyer around. No change here.

Infrastructure — One of the most legitimate areas of federal government intervention are with regards to inter-state infrastructure, including national highways and railways. This is also where I would put any consideration of communications infrastructure (such as the debate about NBN) and energy infrastructure, and this portfolio could also perhaps cover some elements that are currently part of Industry.

Social Services — At the moment there are five cabinet members covering social services — health, families, schools & youth, higher education, and regional Australia (as well as several members of the outer ministry). While all of these are important, they are primarily the responsibility of State and Local governments. There is no need for significant duplication of all these responsibilities, and so these portfolios should be merged to show that the federal government is only involved as a “shadow”, looking over the shoulders of State & Local governments. Any payments that are to remain federal should be so few in number that they can be managed by a single department.

Environmental — While environmental issues should primarily be determined at the State and Local levels, it is perhaps understandable that there should be some federal oversight of environmental issues, especially when considering issues that cross State borders (such as some river systems) or are global (such as climate change). This portfolio would also include Resources and Agriculture.

State & Local government — Currently, there is no portfolio covering federalism, and responsibility for local government is just a sub-area in a larger portfolio. Having this portfolio is indicative of the fact that the federal government should not be stealing responsibilities from State and Local governments, but instead should limit their involvement to assisting with coordination, and helping to improve the functioning of competitive federalism by providing information.

I think the above ten portfolios accurately represent what the federal government should be doing. Many areas have been removed, including Finance, Industry, Industrial Relations, Higher Education, Schools & Youth, Communications, Health, Families & Housing, Human Services, Regional Development, Arts, Resources, Agriculture, Climate Change, Trade, Employment Participation, Aboriginal Affairs, Status of Women, Sport, Small Business, Veterans Affairs, Ageing and Tourism. These areas can easily be incorporated into the new streamline portfolios, decentralised to State or Local governments, or simply removed completely.

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