Negotiate in National Cabinet

Role-play as the federal and state levels of government as they work together to manage issues and provide services for the whole of Australia.

Years 9-12
2-3 lessons

Before you begin

  1. Review and explain:
    • federalism: Australia is a federation. This means we have a written constitution that divides the power to make and manage law between different levels of government. Review the Three levels of government: governing Australia infocus paper to understand the division of powers between the federal Parliament, and state and territory parliaments.
    • co-operative federalism: because the federal and state levels of government share the power to make laws in some areas (concurrent powers), they often need to work together to decide how to deal with national issues. One way they do this is by meeting to discuss national issues. These meetings are chaired by the Prime Minister and attended by the state premiers, the chief ministers of the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory, and the President of the Australian Local Government Association (ALGA).
  2. Use the ‘power’ discussion starters in the Rights, power action discussion starters for older students section of the Unpack democracy classroom activity to prompt class discussion about the three levels of government in Australia.
  3. Ensure students understand that the capacity of the Commonwealth – Australian Government – and the states and territories to work together to deal with issues and provide services to Australians is dominated by their abilities to raise money:
    • vertical fiscal imbalance: the Commonwealth raises more revenue – money – than it spends but the states and territories are unable to raise the revenue they require to provide all the services they are responsible for. This discrepancy in the ability to raise money is called a vertical fiscal imbalance.
    • tied grants or Special Purpose Payments (SPPs): in order to meet their financial obligations, the states rely on grants from the Commonwealth. Using section 96 of the Australian Constitution, the Commonwealth can set conditions on these grants. For example, in exchange for a grant to build new school classrooms, states must implement a national curriculum written by the Australian Government. In this way, the Commonwealth is able to influence areas it does not have the power to make laws in.

Getting started

  1. Distribute the Meeting instructions to each student.
  2. Ask the class to decide on an issue of national significance to debate and decide upon. The issue needs to be one that both the Australian and state parliaments have the power to make laws about—concurrent powers.

To get the most out of this activity, students will need to have knowledge and understanding of the issue to be debated. You could choose a contemporary issue the class has researched, write a hypothetical scenario that has relevance to your unit of study or choose one of the broad ideas below as a starting point.




School funding

Emergency management

Natural disaster


Global pandemic


Water rights


Increasing the rate of the GST

  1. Allocate students to represent the different jurisdictions using the Meeting attendee chart.
  2. Remind meeting participants that the aim is consensus decision-making. This requires compromise. Depending on the issue, consensus may not be possible on the first try. If you don’t have time to try again, a majority vote can be accepted. However, consensus is always the aim.


  1. Commonwealth, state, territory and local government teams briefly discuss and consider the issue. What do they think is the best way to approach the issue? How could they help the people in their community now and in the future? How could working with other jurisdictions help lead to a mutually agreeable outcome?
  2. The Prime Minister starts the meeting by explaining the Commonwealth’s ideas on how to approach the issue. State and territory representatives each state their initial positions— do they support the Commonwealth’s ideas? Teams then have time to meet in small groups and negotiate with other jurisdictions with the aim of agreeing on an approach. As part of the negotiations, state and territory representatives may:
    • trade-off different areas (for example ‘I will do this if in this other area this happens …’)
    • negotiate with the Commonwealth to add or remove tied grants (SPPs)
    • make other agreements with the Commonwealth.
  3. The Prime Minister asks the whole meeting if the Commonwealth’s approach is supported and holds a vote to see if there is an agreed approach. If consensus cannot be reached, a further round of negotiation could be conducted or a majority vote can be accepted.

What happened?

  • The Australian Government has the strongest negotiating position in meeting with the states and territories. Why? How could the jurisdictions with weaker negotiating positions strengthen their positions?
  • What are the next steps? How are agreements put into action? Is the relationship between the Commonwealth and the states fair? How could this relationship be made fairer?
  • Sometimes the states give the Commonwealth their power to make laws in certain areas, usually temporarily but sometimes permanently. Two examples are terrorism and family law powers. This is called a referral. Why would the states want to refer their powers to the Commonwealth? What could be the benefits of doing this?