Saturday, April 20, 2013

Julia's Community Cabinet: Policy Sounding Without Fury

There were quite a few surprises at Julia Gillard's Community Cabinet on 17 April 2013, hosted by Norwood Secondary College in Melbourne's eastern suburb of Ringwood.

Cabinet members held one-on-one interviews before a public forum that lasted over an hour. The government school is in the Federal seat of Deakin held by Labor's Mike Symons. Deakin only needs a swing of 2.41% to change hands but Mike certainly is not conceding anything.

First surprise was that the protesters outside came from only one interest group: the Animal Justice party had mustered over 100 supporters. There were no climate sceptics, no refugee advocates, no University students highlighting funding cuts, no representatives of the monied classes protesting class warfare. This was despite the school being well served by public transport and freeways.

Secondly, the usual suspects did not appear to be inside the event either. Registration was open to all-comers, taking three days to fill apparently. Questions were taken at random. If they were rigged then the PM's slip, in nominating a woman incorrectly as a man, belied that notion.

Someone was handing out the Citizens Electoral Council of Australia newspaper. It is a very reality-challenged organisation - see footnote*** for a taste of their parallel universe.

Somewhat upexpected was the very warm and loud reception Julia Gillard received from the standing-room only crowd. At times it felt more like one of Gough Whitlam's public meetings, with plenty of true believers in attendance. In addition, the government's DisabilityCare program seemed to have attracted a significant number of the participants.

The level of civility was also surprising given the depths of public abuse and denigration our political discord has reached recently. Exchanges were good-humoured and without interjections. Great to see that democracy can flourish without descending to some parody of a survivor reality TV program. No testosterone, and no belittling!

In fact, there was very little spin. Don't take my partisan word for it. Watch the video. It isn't very entertaining unless you're a political junkie. (I met one of those at Ringwood station afterwards, a young man complete with suit, who was bitterly disappointed that he had not managed to have his photo taken with Julia. I had to settle for a brief encounter with our outstanding Health Minister Tanya Pliberek.)

Issues raised by the participants included: climate change, legal aid, same sex marriage, the Royal Commission into child abuse in religious institutions, gay rights in aged care facilities, school education funding, industrial relations, pensioners.

One question that brought agreement from much of the audience was a non-policy one: "The Labor Party has been making a difference for the whole of Australia. Why on earth doesn't the general public know?". Might sound like a Dorothy-Dixer but it wasn't: "Labor's promotion and publicity is absolutely woeful."

The Community cabinet was sound rather than sensational. Julia Gillard certainly hasn't given up and her focus was on what distinguishes her government from Abbott's austere opposition: good policy. Substance over noise!

[*** From the CECA's The New Citizen: "Prince Philip and Queen Elizabeth II have openly, repeatedly proclaimed their intent to kill some six billion human beings, in order to consolidate permanent, worldwide British imperial rule." Won't waste your time by including a weblink.]

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