Thursday, August 05, 2010

Should Community Cabinets be part of the furniture?

Words can create strange alliances in time. My words from last week were used in evidence in high-level political flaming in Queensland's parliament yesterday. And because it now appears in the weighty Hansard, it has forced me to think further about what I wrote. (photo of Anna Bligh speaking to Roma's Community Cabinet: Tim Braban)

Let me explain.

Two weekends ago we had the State Government Community Cabinet in Roma. Anna Bligh and most of her ministers were in town to hear deputations and meet with locals to discuss their issues. We covered the cabinet in detail in last Tuesday’s edition of the local paper, The Western Star, including an editorial I wrote that strongly supported the concept of community cabinets.

Fast forward to Queensland’s parliament yesterday. After a bout of feuding across the floor about federal issues, it was Labor MP Mary-Anne O’Neill’s turn to ask a question without notice of Bligh. O’Neill wanted an update about the success of the recent community cabinets. The question was designed to elicit honest information but coming from a fellow party member it would also act as a Dorothy Dixer for Bligh to attack Tony Abbott further.

Last month the Opposition leader announced some 17 cuts to pay for $1.2 billion worth of election promises. One of these cuts is the axing of federal community cabinets as part of a general trend to hold less meetings.

The Feds can’t axe Queensland’s community cabinets as Bligh well knows. It would be a much harder promise to make for the State-level LNP whose bread and butter is the rural and regional vote. Yet the closeness in time of Bligh’s latest cabinet with Abbott’s announcement was an opportunity too hard to pass up. Bligh got into Abbott’s mind to unleash a bit of conjecture:
“I’ll be so busy cutting and slashing your services that the last thing I want as Prime Minister is to be out there hearing about the pain that those cuts are causing,” said Bligh as Abbott.

It was pure politics.

Yet Bligh did have some interesting things to say about community cabinets. Roma was State Labor's 132nd community cabinet and the 26th since Anna took over in 2007. This was the second time it took place in Roma and the numbers of deputations have almost doubled from 67 to 129 in the ten years between the two.
“What this tells us,” Bligh said, “is that far from the community tiring of those sorts of events, their enthusiasm and appetite for them are increasing."

It was at this point Bligh brought in my article in as ammunition to back her up.
“I will quote from the editorial in last week’s Roma Western Star newspaper. It stated...” she said, before launching into two sentences from my editorial: “It was a great chance for people with local issues to discuss them directly with decision makers. It is forums like these when the government comes to the people that give those affected by decisions 500 kilometres away the chance to make themselves known to administrators, so they can humanise the policies that affect them.”

Bligh went on in her own words. “That is exactly what happens," she said. “At Roma we had delegations to me and all of the other ministers in relation to matters affecting rural Queenslanders.” Bligh said they had delegations from farmers, people talking to the government about protection of cropping land, about getting a balance with mining companies, and about looking after the interests of landowners and rural producers.

“These are absolutely critical issues for Queensland and we will make better decisions in relation to them because we have sat down and talked personally to those people who will be affected by them,” Bligh said.

After this sentence, Bligh began her attack on Abbott which I’ve already documented. Yet the question about the value of community cabinets is moot, especially considering the numbers.

Bligh and I agree they are a great idea, particularly in large dispersed communities like Queensland. But doing 20 or so a year must be extremely expensive in time and money. Federal Labor has also been busy. They have held 24 community cabinet meetings in two and a half years. 6 have been in NSW, 4 each in WA and Queensland, 3 in Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania and 1 in Northern Territory (ACT gets the consolation prize of hosting all of the non-community cabinets).

That is a lot of meetings and they appear to be skewed in favour of the three big northern states. Abbott is wrong to want to axe them but it is a reasonable question to ask how much humanisation of policy we can afford with our taxpayer dollar and in what direction? Maybe we'll come to the surprising conclusion it doesn't happen enough.

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