Australian governments to meet for first COAG meeting of 2006 today

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Friday, February 10, 2006

Australian Parliament House, where the COAG meeting will be held

The Council of Australian Governments (COAG) will meet in Canberra today for its first meeting of 2006. Members of COAG are the Prime Minister, State Premiers, Australian Capital and Northern Territory Chief Ministers, and the President of the Australian Local Government Association. COAG is chaired by the Prime Minister.

On the agenda is a wide range of issues such as health, economic reform, regulation, and education.

The state leaders (all of whom are members of the Australian Labor Party), met last night to develop a strategy for dealing with John Howard, Australia's Prime Minister.

Health

COAG is expected to agree on a AU$1 Billion health package. The centrepiece of the package will be reforms to mental health care. Other elements of the package include the introduction of the national health call centre network, accelerating the implementation of a national electronic health records system, and reducing the number of disabled young people living in nursing homes

Mr Howard said yesterday "I want all of the heads of government of this country to understand it's a serious issue and the Australian public will expect no less than a coordinated genuine commitment by all of us to try and solve the problem."

Mr Howard told federal parliament yesterday part of the problem can be attributed to the closing of mental health institutions. "There is abundant evidence that that process went too far, and whilst I do not advocate and I do not believe Australia would benefit from turning back the clock to the institutions of old, nor can we as a decent society tolerate having people with mental illnesses out in the community unsupported and untreated." said Mr Howard.

The Mental Health Council of Australia's Chief Executive, John Mendozza said there needs to be a massive injection of funds into mental health care and it needs to happen quickly.

"Any Australian who has attempted to access mental health services through the public system will have found that unless they are extremely unwell, and that is a danger to themselves or the community, they probably won't gain admission to those public mental health services, and that simply is not good enough." said Mr Mendozza.

The Prime Minister has also accused cannabis of playing a role in Australia's mental health problems. "I think we are paying a dreadfully heavy price for the abuse of what was so called recreation and socially acceptable drugs despite the clear evidence, unaccepted until a few years ago, that these things were doing massive damage within our community," Mr Howard told parliament yesterday.

"I will ask them (the state premiers) to agree with me that part of the solution to the mental health problem is a tougher line on marijuana, and I imagine they will agree with me," said Mr Howard.

Mr Howard signaled that he supported the move in New South Wales to increase penalties for cannabis, especially hydroponic cannabis which the NSW government claims is stronger. "I welcome the change in direction of many of the states," he said.

The Mental Health Council of Australia has warned the government of over-estimating the role of cannabis in mental health. John Mendozza told ABC "I don't think we should overstate the role of cannabis in the nation's mental health crisis. It is a factor, but it is not the reason that we now face a mental health crisis."

"The real reason is that governments collectively have under-funded the investment in community services for well over a decade and hence we have a large unmet need in the community." said Mr Mendozza.

The national health call centre network was announced by the federal government in January as a means of reducing the number of people going to hospital emergency departments for treatment. Under the plan call centres would be set up with trained nurses who could advise people on the best cause of action to take for a wide variety of health problems.

Under the health package the introduction of an electronic health records system known as HealthConnect will be fast tracked. Governments promise that HealthConnect will improve the quality and safety of health services by providing timely and accurate medical history on a patient. Participation in HealthConnect will be voluntary and patients may withdraw at any time.

Education

COAG will also discuss setting up a national inquiry into early childhood education. The inquiry is expected to explore the possibility of free access to pre-school education. COAG documents warn "By the time Australian children enter formal education, they have very different levels of preparedness for life and learning,"

"Australia's investment in early childhood development before school entry remains low by international standards." says the documents.

COAG is also to explore how to implement a system to ensure trade qualifications gained in one state can be used in another. Under the current system, the majority of trade qualifications gained through state technical colleges are not recognised in other states. Only the small percentage of courses which award certificates under the Australian Qualifications Framework are recognised nationally.

The federal government has also indicated that it wants $11 million spent over four years ease skills shortages in trades such as plumbing and electrical. Federal opposition education spokeswoman, Jenny Macklin said "Eleven million over four years will have little or no impact on the raging skills crisis which is hurting Australian businesses and families,"

"It will provide just 900 training (places). The Australian Industry Group has predicted that by 2010 we will need 100,000 extra skilled tradespeople if we are to address the skills crisis."

Economic Reform and Regulation

The topic of economic reform is expected to arouse debate at the meeting today as the federal, state and territory governments argue about how to fund it.

Victorian Premier Steve Bracks has been one of the key figures behind the plan which has been worked on by state and federal officials over the past past six months.

From 1995 until 2004, the federal government made payments to state and territory governments for reaching milestones in deregulating their economies. If a state failed to meet a required reform as determined by the National Competition Council payments were withheld until the milestone was met. John Howard abolished the scheme stating that the states and territories already received enough revenue through the GST.

The states are said to be arguing that the federal government should be sharing the revenue achieved through their reforms.

It is expected the plan will fail to reach agreement and will have to be considered by a working party.

Federal treasurer Peter Costello has said that economic reform should be bought about by abolishing eight state and territory port and export authorities and create a single national regulatory authority.

The treasurer also indicated he would like to see utility regulation become a federal responsibility.

"Australia would be better served if it could get a uniform system of regulation in relation to ports and port access, in relation to access regimes generally, and in relation to utilities," Mr Costello said.

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