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Community cabinets: a vehicle to promote government policy

By Chris Lewis
Posted Friday, 6 August 2010

With Opposition leader Tony Abbott’s promise to end community cabinet meetings and Prime Minsiter Julia Gillard defending them, this article argues that such forums in the past have had little impact on policy. Rather, as evident by policies and debate concerning housing affordability and disability services, community cabinet meetings provided an avenue for the Rudd government to sells its policy messages.

In terms of housing, the Rudd government often appeared more interested in promoting Australia’s GDP at community cabinet meetings rather than addressing public concerns. At the Launceston meeting (November 5, 2008), when one person called for “real leadership” in line with a recent CSIRO publication suggesting that Australia’s population should be 25-27 million people by 2050, Rudd stated “migrants means more housing needs … which helps create employment in the construction industry”.

At other meetings, Rudd contrasted Australia’s booming housing sector with poorly performing developing economies around the world (Ballajura, April 22, 2009 and Beenleigh, Queensland, June 30, 2009).

Other meetings promoted policies intended to boost the supply of rental housing for poorer households by 50,000 homes, and the construction 20,000 new “social housing dwellings” (as part of its economic stimulus package).

At Ballajura, Western Australia (April 22, 2009), Rudd noted how the government had provided $62.5 million for 4,200 first home owners in Western Australia between October 2008 and February 2009. At Townsville (December 8, 2009), Rudd also highlighted the $84.9 million to create more affordable housing in North Queensland. At Hobart (October 13, 2009).

These policies did not deliver, despite widespread public concern about housing unaffordability.

Large institutional property investors benefited most with the National Rental Affordability Scheme giving them up to $6,000 a year per property for up to 10 years in refundable tax offsets and grants. They also received a further $2,000 per property which was provided by state governments.

As noted by the managing director of SQM Research Louis Christopher (and others) during September 2008, the scheme was contributing to higher house prices under $500,000, making home purchases more expensive. Home affordability was also not helped by cutbacks to superannuation benefits for high-income earners given the likelihood of a high yield with pressure on rents with vacancy rates at only 1 to 2 per cent.

ABS data reveals a large increase in average house prices in percentage terms from the March Quarter 2009 to March Quarter 2010: Sydney (21), Melbourne (27.7), Brisbane (12.1), Adelaide (10.8), Perth (15), Hobart (14.1), Darwin (17.5) and Canberra (20.6).

In fact, most of the government’s housing policy aims failed. In February 2008, the government established a First Home Savings Accounts to assist first-home buyers to save a deposit. Yet, as of June 30, 2009, just 13,946 accounts had been opened instead of the 220,000 predicted in its first year.

And with 50,000 low-cost homes promised by Labor by 2012, just 2,416 social housing dwellings had been built by February 2010.

No wonder the Salvation Army stated in 2010 that homeless rates had not decreased in the past 18 months with a higher risk now because of the housing shortage.

In contrast to housing, the government’s policies on disability services were more effective. In May 2008, the Rudd government announced an extra $1.9 billion (totalling $5.3 billion over five years) for the new Commonwealth State/Territory agreement (2009-13) with an extra 24,500 disability services to be available from 2009. Further, the Commonwealth’s contribution was now indexed at more than 6 per cent over the life of the five-year agreement, compared with a previous arrangement of 1.8 per cent.

But again, the Rudd government used cabinet meetings mostly to promote its disability services policies. At Launceston (November 5, 2008), the government noted how 1,700 married disability pensioners received $2,100 per couple, while 2,800 single disability pensioners received $1,400. At Geelong (December 7, 2008) and Townsville (December 8, 2009), Rudd spoke of the assistance that one-off payments had given carers and people with disabilities.

At Ballajura, Western Australia (April 22, 2009), Nicola Roxon, the Health Minister, noted Labor’s recent efforts to establish six early childhood centres to “support children very early in their life with autism”. Bill Shorten, Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities and Children’s Services, added that “we’re providing workshops for 7,000 teachers” and “funding 150 extra playgroups”.

At Elizabeth, South Australia (July 28, 2009), when asked what the Commonwealth was doing in regards to accessibility for people with disabilities, Shorten argued that the Howard government did nothing from 2004, and “that the Rudd government has put issues of access to the physical premises well and truly on the map”.

Community cabinet meetings made little difference. Even after considerable effort by key interest groups, it took nearly two years before Treasurer Wayne Swan (October 2009) announced that the Productivity Commission “will undertake a feasibility study” in regard to a no-fault social insurance scheme to cover people’s disability and mental service needs”. That was only if “the economy gives us the means to afford them”.

In contrast to community cabinet meetings, greater policy influence is much more likely at elections when more people are exposed to issues.

Take the Coalition’s promise to spend $1.5 billion on mental health services, an announcement which led Gillard (July 27, 2010) to inject a further $277 million to boost suicide-prevention measures.

This policy struggle followed events in June 2010 when the National Advisory Council on Mental Health chairman John Mendoza resigned in disgust and about 70 mental health experts and organisations pressured the Rudd government for more action.

And on July 29, 2009, Gillard announced the first ever National Disability Strategy. It included up to $12,000 for early intervention services for each child prior to their seventh birthday (a maximum of $6,000 to be spent in each financial year); a Medicare rebate for the treatment and management of each diagnosed child under the age of 13 to cover up to four allied health diagnostic services; and up to 20 allied health treatment services. And additional funding to support more than 300 supported accommodation places for those being looked after by older carers.

To conclude, community cabinet meetings, illustrated by both housing and disability services, made little difference to the Rudd government’s policies. They do not demonstrate any substantive difference when compared to the other sources of influence that exists between competition between political parties and their interaction with interest groups and public opinion.

Whoever wins the 2010 federal election, community cabinets should go in order to remove a forum that, at best, promotes a government’s policies at a local level. Or, at worst, its rhetoric.

Chris Lewis has an interest in all economic, social and environmental issues, but believes that the struggle for the ‘right’ policy mix remains an elusive goal in such a complex and competitive world.

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