Narangba Valley State High School was the venue today for the Rudd Government’s second ever community cabinet. The idea was an election promise and brings together Kevin Rudd and his entire cabinet in front of a public audience for a question and answer session. Afterwards there are one-on-one meetings with each of the ministers available for consultation. I attended today’s session along with 800 others in the school hall.
While security was tight on the roads leading to the school, I surprisingly got in without a bag search. The outer northern suburban location was carefully chosen, being in the constituency of Longman where the former Howard Indigenous Affairs Minister Mal Brough was spectacularly defeated with a massive swing of 10.3 per cent. The new sitting member Jon Sullivan introduced today’s session. He was followed by a local Aboriginal elder’s "Welcome to Country" and a brief address from Queensland Premier Anna Bligh.
Bligh said she was delighted to welcome the cabinet to Queensland and also happy that they had taken up a Queensland Government initiative to hold community cabinets. She welcomed the Prime Minister who, she said, being born one hour north of Narangba was, “one of us”. She also noted that Rudd had turned the sod on the Ipswich Motorway that morning and said he had proven he was a man who was “going to deliver”.
Kevin Rudd then took the podium looking relaxed, comfortable and jocular. He announced today was Transport Minister Anthony Albanese’s birthday (45th) and he asked the audience to go easy on “Albo”. He then went on to introduce all the ministers on the podium. Present were Deputy PM Julia Gillard, Treasurer Wayne Swan, Albanese, Joe Ludwig (Human Services), Lindsay Tanner (Finance), Stephen Conroy (Communications), Nicola Roxon (Health), Simon Crean (Trade), John Faulkner (Special Minister for State), Jenny Macklin (Indigenous Affairs), Chris Evans (Immigration), Penny Wong (Climate Change), Joel Fitzgibbon (Defence), Robert McClelland (Attorney-General), Martin Ferguson (Resources) and Tony Burke (Agriculture, or as Rudd called him “the farmers’ friend”).
The only notable absentees were Foreign Minister Stephen Smith who was overseas (Rudd said “we’ll forgive him”) and Environment Minister Peter Garrett who was in Sydney for Clean Up Australia Day. After the introductions, Rudd began by saying the community cabinet was them being here to answer questions. The idea, he said, was that governments would remain in touch with people. He said all wisdom does not lie within the commonwealth public service and events such as this and the 2020 Summit give the government the chance to bring in new thinking. “Different ideas how we do things better,” he said.
Rudd said he was delighted to be in the seat of Longman which he called “a growth corridor” with the population up 25 percent since 2001. He said that placed great impact on roads, schools, hospitals and local services which pose a challenge to governments. He mentioned all the promised spending in the area such as $200 million on the Bruce Hwy upgrade, $125m on the northern missing link from the Gateway Motorway at Nudgee to the Bruce Highway and $30m on Caboolture blackspots. He also promised funding to local organisations such as the PCYC and local sports clubs. He then opened the floor to questions.
The first question related to the Howard’s Government 2006 family law reforms. The questioner said the laws were unworkable and on custodial matters courts were ignoring evidence and judging on hearsay. A-G Robert McClelland said the fifty-fifty residence presumption “kicks in the middle of this year”. The government would monitor the impact of legislation to orders of domestic violence. He said magistrates were aware of the consequences. It was important, he said, to remove perpetrators of violence and make “families and children safe”.
The second questioner said 7,000 people die each year from lung cancer making it one of the biggest cancer killers in Australia but wanted to know why it attracted just 5 per cent of research funding. Kevin Rudd was sympathetic saying his own mother died three years ago of lung cancer. He said there was $250 million promised in the election for research and clinical trials. Health Minister Nicola Roxon said she had not met the Australian Lung Foundation yet. The challenge was to deal with very specialised treatment. She said she was talking to state ministers about cancer care in public hospitals.
An aboriginal woman wanted funding for a round table group and was encouraged to talk to Jenny Macklin later. Similarly a group looking for federal funding for the Caboolture Regional Arts Development was encouraged to put in a submission to the 2020 Summit. Lobbyists for a cultural centre in Caboolture area were asked to talk to Albanese afterwards where their application “would be given due consideration”.
The next questioner wanted to know what the government were doing about housing affordability which was causing a “financial crisis” for many in the area. Rudd said homelessness was a major challenge with 100,000 homeless people in Australia according to the census and 10,000 sleeping rough each night. He said that “in a country as wealthy as ours, that should not be happening”. He said the Minister for Housing Tanya Plibersek was putting together a white paper on homelessness with the Brotherhood of St Lawrence due by year end. But there would be “no quick and easy one size fits all fix”. There had to be a holistic approach that also looked at these people’s health problems so they had the wherewithal to become self-reliant.
The next questioner was a land developer who wanted to know how the government would “cut through the red tape” to allow his land to be released for “first time home buyers”. Rudd answered again, saying the affordability crisis affects young people who spend “38 per cent of income” in mortgage repayments. The government is holding a summit on housing affordability. Wayne Swan is establishing a new, low tax, First Home Saver Accounts scheme and on the supply side they are looking at three separate policies to deal with rental accommodation, state governments and local governments.
The next questioner wanted to know if the government would meet the Millennium Development Goal target of 0.7 per cent GNP foreign aid by 2015. He also noted that the previous government included such items as border protection, terrorist prevention and the Pacific Solution as “foreign aid”. Rudd answered on behalf of the absent foreign minister. He said that currently aid was 0.34 per cent and Australia would commit to 0.5 per cent by 2015. He admitted that fell short of the 0.7 per cent but said “it was a step in the right direction”. He also said the government have abolished the Pacific Solution.
The next questioner said the government could solve the housing affordability crisis by removing negative gearing. Rudd began by saying the previous government had no ministry for Housing so did not take the problem seriously. He said this was “core business” for Labor and “absolutely fundamental for working families”. However, he said continued negative gearing was an explicit election commitment which they didn’t intend to breach.
A questioner from a steel company said the skills crisis was caused by poor training. He said they had a proposal which would be a “gift to the government”. In her only contribution, Deputy PM Julia Gillard acknowledged that her chief of staff had already talked to the firm and would follow it up. A Brisbane aboriginal questioner wanted to know what the government were doing to “close the gap” on health. Jenny Macklin responded by acknowledging that most Indigenous people lived in urban areas and any health solution needed not just to focus on remote areas. The government would not be able to close the gap on life expectancy if it didn’t cover urban areas.
The youngest questioner was a young boy who stood on a box to ask what the government were doing about Type 1 Juvenile Diabetes and whether they would fund insulin pumps which cost $8,000 each. Rudd said he had talked with doctors in Launceston about type 1 and 2 diabetes and both categories “demand action”. Roxon said a submission for the pumps is being considered by the government. She hailed the Juvenile Diabetic Research Foundation as a “very effective lobby group”.
The next questioner said Queensland Transport does not seriously take into account independent submissions on public transport options and there should be central co-ordination of transport plans. Albanese said he has met all the state transport ministers but disagreed it could be managed centrally. Then a person suggested the government should subsidise sport for low-income families. Roxon said she was working with Sports Minister Kate Ellis on preventative health schemes but couldn’t give questioner a specific answer.
The last question came from the Aboriginal elder who gave the “welcome to country”. She said the Native Title Act needed to be scrapped or at least simplified. She called it a “lawyer’s goldmine and a minefield for Indigenous people”. Attorney-General McClelland agreed Native Title was “horrendously complex”. He said “we needed to focus on getting outcomes” not on looking knowledgeable about the legislation. He said the government was focussed on “long term productive outcomes”.
That ended the public session after the best part of two hours. The cabinet ministers then retired with their assistants and senior public servants to meet with individuals and lobby groups. While it is doubtful that any new agenda item got raised or anything much got fixed this is still an excellent idea and shows a interested and eager government ready to serve. Kevin Rudd dominated the proceedings and it clearly the star performer, but it would be have been good to hear more from Gillard, and anything at all from the silent Treasurer Wayne Swan. But all participants seemed focussed and genuinely happy to be there. Whether the same enthusiasm is there in two years time remains to be seen, but this is a very positive step in engaging the citizenry. And Brendan Nelson's Liberals never looked more irrelevant than today.