Originating in Queensland, Australia, community cabinets spread throughout the country as a means to engage citizens in democratic processes of consultation on regional policies and priorities. Support for the initiative has waned with reductions in federal funding.
Problems and Purpose
In recent years, governments have sought to fight disenchantment and disengagement with the political process through different forms of citizen participation. In Australia, one of the initiatives introduced were Community Cabinets, where citizens could attend a local meeting and question their representatives on state policies in their given region. The Community Cabinets were introduced to provide an avenue for citizens to hold their respective state leaders to account. This in turn has led to the creation of a more participatory form of governance. The Community Cabinet initiative originated in Queensland and spread to other areas of the country, being regularly used in areas where the elections had been a tight contest. Although the meetings were only a consultation, rather than citizens being involved in the decision making process, some of the issues which received the most attention by citizens did result in action by the government. Currently, however, government support for the initiative seems to be waning with funding no longer being provided by the federal government.
Background History and Context
The concept of Australian Community Cabinets was first introduced at the state level in Queensland, following the 1998 state elections. However, the idea was not a new phenomenon. In 1954, the Menzies government introduced a similar system which was a two-tier cabinet system involving an inner cabinet and an outer cabinet, the inner cabinet being similar to the cabinet system in the United Kingdom. Essentially this two-tier system allowed for greater involvement across government. This developed further to include community engagement and in 1976 the Royal Commission on Australian Government Administration promoted an idea of greater community engagement in government activities that could allow citizens to be in ‘touch’ with policy-makers . Advocates of this system have now not only expanded within the Australian government, primarily within the Labour faction  but the United Nations (UN) has taken an interest in the engagement of citizens. In the UN’s World Public sector report 2008 they felt that proactive engagement, although potentially costly, empowers citizens and can develop trust in the government. It appears that the Beattie Labour Government merely adapted the governing system to allow a wider involvement not just in government but from the general public.
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
The Beattie government were the original advocates of the Community Cabinets policy. The 1998 elections saw a close win by a minority labour government but also highlighted a growing discontent amongst rural voters in Queensland. In 1998, Pauline Hanson’s right-wing populist party, One Nation, received 22.7% of the vote, with only Labour ahead of them. In order for Beattie to gain support and control of his newly founded government, he entered negotiations with Peter Wellington, the Member of Parliament (MP) for the Independent Party, who pushed for a more participatory form of governance. It was as a result of the growing support for One Nation and the negotiations with Wellington, that several new participatory initiatives were born. From 1998, the Beattie government introduced several initiatives to engage a broader selection of the population, one of which were the Community Cabinets.
The Community Cabinets relied on a mixture of formal and informal discussion in order to allow members of the public to engage with ministers and to create a situation where policy making could become more responsive to the public needs. The Queensland model of Community Cabinets later became the basis for Mark Latham’s (Australian Labour Party; ALP) 2004 Commonwealth election campaign. Drawing on the Queensland model, Latham proposed Federal Community Cabinet meetings where cabinet ministers and local communities could discuss local issues in order to improve ‘accountability and ministerial behaviour’ . The Federal Community Cabinet initiative was later introduced in early 2008 following the Kevin Rudd led ALP success in the 2007 Commonwealth elections.
The cost of running the Community Cabinets must be mentioned when discussing their implementation. Corbett states that there were between 10-20 civil servants from the Prime Ministers department who were in charge of arranging the meetings, organising the transport for both the cabinet ministers and staff, and for sorting the wages for all the staff involved. Each of these areas suggests that the Community Cabinets could be costly for the Australian government.
In 2008 the total cost of eight meetings was AUD$453,809.86 (Cabinet Portfolio 2008) further indicating the high level of cost to run these meetings. Despite this, the 2007-08 Rudd Government committed AUD$10.9 million over five years to support the “the Government’s commitment to Community Cabinet meetings”. The government funding granted to the Community Cabinets allowed them to run effectively without seeming worry for cost.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
Federal Community Cabinets involve the Prime Minister, cabinet ministers as well as members of the public. All available cabinet members are required to take part, and must give a good reason for non-attendance. In terms of participation from members of the public, anyone can attend as long as they register beforehand. Newspaper advertisements were used to invite interested parties to sign up for these Community Cabinets.
The initial forum was open to all of the attendees, however, meetings with individual ministers with singular attendees and groups (limited to five people) had to be requested and confirmed beforehand. As highlighted by Joy McCann, there were a great deal of public participants, ‘in the period between the 2007 and 2010 Commonwealth elections, the government conducted 24 Community Cabinets involving nearly 11,000 citizens’ [1, p8]. The method of recruitment was based on self-selection. An issue with this form of participatory selection is that the citizens participating are generally from the more politically active members of society. Overall, this tends to mean that the voices being aired in these gatherings are the ones that are being heard anyway.
Methods and Tools Used
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What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
With the aim of reaching as many different people as possible, the monthly federal Community Cabinets were held in each of the Australian territories. The programme began with the first meeting in Perth, Western Australia on 20th January 2008, and between then and the 2010 Commonwealth elections, “there were six meetings in New South Wales, four each in Western Australia and Queensland, three each in Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania, and one in the Northern Territory” [5, p.8]. The locations that the meetings were held at included local schools and gymnasiums, thus creating an atmosphere that the government was focused on the locality and the local people. It is also relevant to note that of all 33 meetings (from 2008 to 2012), 13 (39.4 percent) were held in areas where the government received less than 56 percent of votes in the previous election. This demonstrates that the government were committed to holding the Community Cabinets with all members of the public, not only those who voted the governing party into power.
Alongside when and where the meetings were conducted, it is important to know how they worked in practice. This aspect of the Federal Community Cabinets clearly highlights their adaptation from the earlier Queensland state Community Cabinets. Each event was divided into 3 parts. It would begin with an hour-long open forum, where the local public (only required to register in order to attend) were able to ask the Prime Minister questions, who could then pass any questions on to the relevant Minister of the Cabinet for their specific knowledge. With all available cabinet ministers expected to attend, specialist knowledge was nearly always available on matters of concern. This meant that a citizen could either have their question answered within the meeting or could raise their concern with the individual another time. One limitation to this section is the potential for ministers to deflect questions they are unable or unwilling to answer, however, the following part of the meetings attempted to rectify this.
This next section of the Community Cabinets entailed 5 one-on-one discussions between citizens and members of the cabinet, each meeting lasting 10 minutes [5, p.8]. Individuals who wanted to arrange one of these meetings with a minister was required to submit their topic of concern and it must be confirmed beforehand, allowing the minster time to obtain the relevant information from their department. By allowing members of the public to talk in greater depth with prior-prepared ministers, there was a reduced possibility of ministers being able to deflect or evade questions, and consequently thought-out solutions to the concerns of citizens were more likely to be reached. The one-to-one meetings also removed the issue of dominant speakers as seen in larger public forums, as they allowed each citizens concerns and questions to be heard.
The media, whilst fulfilling an important role of informing citizens about the details of the Community Cabinets, were denied any involvement in this stage of the meetings (ibid). This is understandable because there were and still are, many forums where members of the media are able to question government ministers, such as news interviews and press conferences. The removal of the media allowed ensured that citizens had the opportunity to question and discuss issues with their cabinet members. One should also note that from 2010 to 2012, individual meetings were instead conducted prior to the public forum.
A cabinet meeting would conclude these Community Cabinets, purely a symbolic gesture but an important soft method of ensuring citizens felt listened to. Holding the entire Community Cabinet process in buildings important to the local community, enabled the government to give the impression that they were making decisions with the location and local people in mind.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
To measure the effectiveness of Federal Community Cabinets in Australia one must take into account that they were made to address specific local issues. Lewis and Marsh offer assessment of Community Cabinet meetings on the basis of home ownership and disability services.
After three Community Cabinet meetings in May 2008, the government launched a $623 million fund to build 50,000 homes in multiple regions of Australia. Such action was taken to reduce the homelessness and increase the affordability of homes in poorer households. As a result, Australia experienced a 2.2% increase in construction sector and 5.8% increase in residential investment. Due to the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) in late 2008, the majority of renters and first homebuyers were not able to benefit from the fund allocation. Many corporations were taking advantage of the government’s national affordability scheme, and prevented home prices from falling significantly to benefit poorer households. Given that the GFC played a major role in the reduction of effectiveness of the national affordability scheme, it is possible that the results of fund allocation could have benefited the renters and first homebuyers if the GFC had not occurred.
In May 2008 the Australian government announced that $1.9 billion would be allocated for a new Commonwealth-State-Territory agreement, which included $409 million to fund services and reforms to the disability services system. This fund allocation was strongly supported by the early Labour government, which was reflected on in the Community Cabinet meetings. The Disability Investment Group, established by Rudd in April 2008, encouraged the private sector to play a greater role in the disability sector and consequently called for major structural reform. The effect of Community Cabinets, with support of Labour government, was evident in the promotion of disability services in Australia. However, after the Commission report in July 2011, the disability services issue was put on a low priority list. The cost of just maintaining the disability services was rising by five percent more than inflation, which meant that it would have been challenging for Australian government to keep funding the disability services. According to Creswell , the election campaigns were more effective than the Community Cabinets in encouraging greater government action in such key issues, which may explain the ineffectiveness of the Community Cabinets in tackling the disability services issue.
According to McCann, the Community Cabinets reduced the inter-personal gap between the Australian citizens and politicians. The community meetings allowed citizens to be informed about political affairs, and present their personal opinions on local issues. Although the engagements of Community Cabinets were vulnerable to changes in the financial/political environments, the Community Cabinets guaranteed the satisfaction of the citizens with the process of federal community meetings. As a result, Federal Community Cabinet meetings familiarised the some citizens with local politics, which in turn arguably stabilised the political environment in Australia, although questions arise as to whether it was citizens that were already politically active who participated.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
One of the most notable successes of the Federal Community Cabinets was their attempt to break down the multi-level nature of modern governance. Although, the Cabinet Meetings were largely symbolic in nature, the opportunity for regular citizens to question and engage with high ranking officials must be praised. As highlighted by Corbett, feedback from participants indicated that they were happy with being able to interact with their Prime Minster and Cabinet Members in person. Furthermore, the one-on-one meetings with individual ministers gave citizens the opportunity to lobby individual ministers. As Corbett states, this allowed citizens with personal grievances to bypass lobbying their MPs, and discuss their issues with ministers. Whilst the Community Cabinets had some fatal flaws, which will be discussed below, the attempts bring big government to a local level must be praised.
Does the idea actually enhance the deliberation held? Deliberative democracy theorists may argue that this has not occurred whatsoever. People will attend meetings with their preferences pre-set, skewed towards helping themselves. Preferences will always be based on private reasoning as that is what the very design of Community Cabinets demands. Therefore, true deliberative democracy (with a definition that requires preference formation through deliberation ) can never be seemingly realised in the community cabinet setting.
A governance-driven democratisation argument is also relevant here: Community Cabinets were a way for the Australian government to make their process of governance democratic again. However, theoretically, there was very little democracy involved in Community Cabinets. The initiative arguably just legitimised state action over its peoples, with little avenue for the ordinary citizen to make real change. On Arnstein’s ladder of participation (1969) this would be considered only a token gesture by the Australian government, with Community Cabinets being on the consultation rung. Citizens were not part of the decision making process after the meetings, and therefore questions rise as to whether citizens were empowered at all by the Federal Community Cabinets.
The attendance for the Community Cabinets must be viewed as one of the most significant problems associated with the initiative. The participants of these cabinets were primarily from the older generation and therefore the extent to which the meetings created an empowered and informed public is brought into question. The nature of the Community Cabinets appealed to the older generations, largely because they were the demographic which had the time and the means to attend. Community Cabinets were often held on weekdays where students, professionals, and the like were unlikely to attend, therefore excluding them from the participation process. The advertising of the Community Cabinets through newspapers also will have contributed towards this skewed attendance. In the modern age, advertisement through newspapers tends to exclude certain demographics in society, particularly the young and the disadvantaged, as they either do not engage with information sources or turn towards the internet. Therefore, as in many attempted consultation exercises, Community Cabinets failed to attract more than the “usual suspects”. The programme relied heavily on a certain demographic of society for participation and so it is arguable that the Community Cabinets were fundamentally flawed, with consequently low participation rates and the same voices and opinions being heard across Australia.
As discussed earlier, Community Cabinets were particularly costly. Corbett (2016) has highlighted the various costs associated with these meetings, ranging from paying wages of ministers and their staff, to the cost of the venue and transport. For the eight meetings held in 2008, it is estimated that each meeting cost AUD$57,000 (Cabinet Portfolio, 2008). Whilst the Australian government was initially able to afford this, the 2008 GFC meant that spending money on an initiative that didn’t provide any practical outcomes was counter intuitive. The last recorded Federal Community Cabinet occurred in June 2012, however there are still meetings of a similar nature held at the state level in Queensland.
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