Should Community Cabinets be part of democracy’s furniture?

Hansard tells me my words from last week were used in evidence in high-level political flaming in Queensland’s parliament yesterday. (photo of Anna Bligh speaking to Roma’s Community Cabinet: Tim Braban)
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 issues. We covered the cabinet in detail in last Tuesday’s edition of the local paper, The Western Star.

In Queensland’s parliament yesterday there was feuding across the floor about federal issues. Labor MP Mary-Anne O’Neill’s asked Premier Bligh about the success of the recent community cabinets. The question was a Dorothy Dixer for Bligh to attack Tony Abbott.

Opposition leader Abbott announced 17 proposed cuts last month 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 trend to hold less meetings.

The timing of Bligh’s latest cabinet was too hard to pass up. It offered Bligh the chance to get into Abbott’s mind and 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 but Bligh did have interesting things to say about community cabinets. Roma was State Labor’s 132nd community cabinet and the 26th since 2007 under her tenure. 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”.

Bligh then brought in my article 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 Bligh read 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.”

“That is exactly what happens,” Bligh continued. “At Roma we had delegations to me and all of the other ministers in relation to matters affecting rural Queenslanders.”

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.

Bligh then began her attack on Abbott which I’ve already documented.

The question about the value of community cabinets is moot. Bligh and I agree they are a great idea, particularly in large dispersed communities like Queensland. But doing 20 a year is extremely expensive. Like in Queensland, Federal Labor has 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 are skewed in favour of the three big northern states. Abbott is wrong 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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