Last night I turned the clock back 40 years and headed back to Norwood High School (now Norwood Secondary College) to attend a Community Cabinet meeting. These are part of the Labor Government’s commitment to offer opportunities for people to share concerns and issues directly with government, this was the 40th such event. Held in school halls and community centres around Australia, the majority of Gillard Government ministers were lined up in front of a 350-strong audience of concerned locals. Right on time the Prime Minister appeared and was escorted to the podium by local Member for Deakin, Mr. Mike Symon, to a standing ovation. Yes, that is correct, a standing ovation.
For the next hour the attendees asked a variety of questions, most of which were concerned with social equity issues. These included concerns about Work Choices, the National Disability Support Scheme (NDIS), climate change, domestic violence, the scope of the Royal Commission into child sex abuse and the finer points of the Gonski review and its implementation. In most cases the Prime Minister referred to the relevant minister for a response; Jenny Macklin got a heavy workout, while Treasurer Wayne Swann and the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Bob Carr did not receive any direct questions about their portfolios. There were two questions on same-sex marriage, including discrimination against same-sex couples in aged care. One questioner asked if we were really going to let New Zealanders beat us to the punch when it came to legalising same-sex marriage. (We have, as this legislation passed through the New Zealand Parliament as the Community Cabinet was underway).
The spirit of the meeting was amicable. Not everyone agreed with current Labor Government policy. But many present did congratulate the Prime Minister on the many diverse reforms achieved thus far. At the end of 60 minutes, after a question on the availability of TAFE training for Auslan interpreters drew a solid round of applause, Ms. Gillard and her Cabinet rose to leave. Many ministers stopped to have photos taken, shake hands and chat with those present as they left the school hall.
My Mum, Betty, is 85. She was quite excited when she found the notice in a local paper that the Prime Minister and her Cabinet would be meeting locals at my old school, Norwood High. Okay, it’s now called Norwood Secondary College, just to be politically correct, but to me it will always be Norwood High. So I suggested we attend together, to have a first hand look at a cabinet in action. Watching history in the making, if you like.
The preliminary registration process was a bit tedious. You had to register online two weeks in advance, and even though you went through this rigmarole, they didn’t actually tell you that you were in. A couple of phone calls later, this was confirmed, so we headed off to the school for refreshments at 5.30pm followed by the one-hour Community Cabinet meeting at 6pm.
- The school uniform has improved out of sight. The purple and gold (puhleeeeeese!!!) of my youth has given way to a more royal hue of purple and the gold has virtually disappeared.
- Unlike AFL Grand Finals, when Advance Australia Fair is played, the political ‘players’ knew the words and sang along. Including the Prime Minister. Another refreshing change
- The care of, and respect for, those with a disability was impressive. Which is probably why most attendees seem to be giving a thumbs-up to the Labor Government for introducing the NDIS
- Concerns really were focussed on those of access to the basics, be they access to insurance, care, training, fair work conditions, equal educational opportunities, reasonable aged care and equality before the law when it comes to who you wish to marry. I can’t say I’m surprised. I grew up in Ringwood North. It was, and probably still is, Labor Heartland. If Mike Symon cannot hold his seat on 14 September, then it will be symptomatic of a massive Labor wipeout nationally. Deakin is indeed a seat to watch.
- The NBN did not rate much of a mention, nor did defence or foreign affairs
- The economy was totally ignored, including taxation, superannuation and the upcoming budget. One gentleman congratulated the PM on her government’s positive treatment of pensioners, but money was not a topic of discussion apart from funding of social equity programs.
I was impressed by the organisation, the politeness of security staff, staff from the department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, and both students and staff from Norwood High (sorry – Secondary!). The Ringwood North Community Cabinet was orderly, well mannered and as previously mentioned, extremely amicable.
And once again I can only marvel at my luck to be born in a nation which is democratic, based on rule of law and allows regular citizens to mingle with the most senior politicians in the land, free of agitation or fear.
No bombs went off, no one was denied access, no angry exchanges were had. Just polite questioning of elected representatives about how they are doing their day job. Now isn’t that an impressive performance in anyone’s language?