Foreign Minister Bob Carr has called for an overhaul of state-federal relations, saying the states should be given more power and that the Council of Australian Governments should be radically changed.
''Let's get serious, let's strip the COAG agenda right back,'' Senator Carr said. ''Let's focus on six things. Let's give the states something meaningful to do.''
Senator Carr's suggestion would be a significant overhaul as COAG has more than 60 items on its agenda.
COAG is the mechanism by which federal and state governments work together, and has been so since Paul Keating established it in 1992.
Senator Carr made similar comments when he was Premier of NSW and echo statements made earlier this week another former NSW premier, Liberal Nick Greiner. Mr Greiner said COAG was ''grossly overburdened'' and needed to focus on fewer issues if it wanted to achieve meaningful reform.
Senator Carr's suggestion that COAG focus on six issues was warmly received by constitutional expert Andrew Banfield, who lectures in politics at the Australian National University.
Dr Banfield said if he was to pick the six areas for the states and Commonwealth to discuss he would have three standing items (health, cities and the environment) and leave three slots open for emergency subjects or as needs arise.
COAG began slipping into dysfunction in the late 1990s, by Dr Banfield's reckoning. More and more powers, for example education policy, are being leached away from the states.
When Australia became a federation, the system was designed to empower the states and leave the central government quite weak – mostly responsible for defence, foreign relations and some customs powers.
But the federal government has since accrued more power as a result of High Court decisions that allowed it to interfere in state responsibilities, and now many, including Senator Carr, believe the states should be returned some of their powers.
''I think we've got to look creatively at giving the states more responsibilities, loading them up with more responsibilities and saying you're answerable to the people for how you do this,'' Senator Carr said.
State ministries could be stripped back to eight or 10 ministers, ''and that's being generous with workloads'', Senator Carr said. The NSW government has 15 ministers, while the Victorian government has more than 20.
''It's not working well enough for the people of Australia,'' he said.
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.