(net) Working the electorate
From Griffith REVIEW Edition 3: Webs of Power
© Copyright Griffith University & the author.
Written by Patrick Bishop
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Patrick Bishop's biography and other articles by this writer
Sunday evening is the best chance for leisure time for overworked politicians. On this Sunday, however, we find three Labor premiers, not in their homes or their offices in the state capitals, but in three small hotel rooms in three one-satellite-dish towns scattered across the more remote parts of Australia, discussing party business via a satellite-phone hook-up. The two newer premiers chastise the older hand. "It's your fault we're stuck way out here on a Sunday night," they only half-jokingly complain. The third knows they are right. It is his innovation that has dragged them from the family hearth on a Sunday evening but he is not apologetic. Community cabinet meetings work, he would say, are good politics, good for representative democracy and good for premiers. Let the identity of the two new premiers remain a mystery. The identity of the third is Queensland Premier Peter Beattie, premier since 1998 and in an election this year the "defender" of the largest majority in the country.
With electoral volatility a feature of the current political landscape, predictions are dangerous, but I anticipate a healthy margin for Labor in Queensland after the election. Notwithstanding the outcome, I suggest that the value of community cabinets has already been tested in the cauldron of electoral politics.
In 1998, such a luxurious margin seemed unlikely. As an apparent marker of the trend to greater electoral volatility, the 1998 election saw not only 28 per cent of the vote go to the One Nation Party but a third knife-edge result. The question of who would form government rested in the hands of two independents: Peter Wellington and Liz Cunningham. As the National Party government had previously relied on the good offices of the member for Gladstone (Cunningham) to retain power, Beattie's best chance was Wellington. Wellington pushed for a "deal": that the new government should be more participative. This was also a view pushed by the populist One Nation Party, holders of 11 seats in parliament. Politicians had stopped listening and we, the people, needed representatives who were in touch with our everyday concerns.
As it turned out, this was far from a Mephistophelian deal for Beattie, who has proved himself master of making connections with "the people". Eschewing the technocratic image associated with Wayne Goss, itself somewhat of a construction given his status as the nation's most popular premier some 12 months before his eventual defeat, serves Beattie well, differentiating him from both past leaders, Goss and National Party leader Rob Borbidge, who was often seen as "aloof". Beattie's personal style, ironically, has more affinity with his nemesis from trade union days, former National Party Queensland premier and populist par excellence, Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen.
Unlike Sir Joh, however, Beattie's personal appeal as the embodiment of Queensland, transcends partisan politics. At the Kingaroy community cabinet (Bjelke-Petersen heartland) he started off by saying that he had just come from morning tea with Sir Joh and Lady Bjelke-Petersen, that he knew Kingaroy would never vote Labor, but that he was not there to win elections but as Premier of Queensland, working for all Queenslanders. In the front row, he acknowledged the member for Kingaroy, Dolly Pratt, then of One Nation, who hung on his every word and graciously accepted his acknowledgement. Even National Party stalwarts in local government find him approachable, appreciate his efforts on their behalf and rank him a "good bloke and a good premier".
Beattie was a populist confronted with the problem of populism in the guise of the "anti-politics" of One Nation. The connection between populist movements, at that time more right-wing than left, from Jean-Marie Le Pen in France, Georg Haider in Austria, to Ross Perot in the United States, was a deep distrust of professional politics and politicians. This applied as much to politics in two-party systems, as in Australia and the US, as to the "behind the scenes" deal making of established multi-party systems in Austria or France. Populists do not necessarily share an ideology but are uniform in their attack on the practice of professional politics, which they always see as detrimental to "ordinary people". Politicians, on this account, are self-interested, disconnected from the people they represent, "only in it for the pension" and/or "elitist".
Populism presents a problem for democratic governments, representative democracy in particular. Populists draw attention to the fact that between elections the citizens are subject to the will of their chosen government. Unless there is some degree of trust between electors and the elected, the populist threat to established political parties is very real.
To meet this challenge, Peter Beattie adapted an old Queensland format, community cabinet meetings (the first had been held in the 1950s) but he dramatically altered their structure and made a far greater commitment of resources and, especially, time. In responding to press questions at the time, Beattie spelt out his attitude that government was about getting out in the community and listening to what the community wanted. Echoing the populist concern that "political parties, governments and public servants have for too long thought they are the font of all wisdom", he exclaimed: "They're bloody not! You get some very bright ideas from out of the community."
COMMUNITY CABINET MEETINGS HAVE NOW TAKEN PLACE all over Queensland in a range of locations from the relative splendour of the Currumbin-Palm Beach RSL & Services Memorial Club to a non-air-conditioned, corrugated-iron recreation club on Cape York. They occur every four weeks and the pattern has not altered in the nearly six years they have been a feature of the Queensland political landscape. The Saturday's proceedings comprise three sessions. The first is an address by the Premier with all his cabinet present (introduced by name and portfolio, with often informal familiarisations, such as announcing a minister's birthday). Once the ministers are introduced, the Premier enthuses about the Government's desire to hear from the people and then calls for questions from the floor. At a Gold Coast meeting, questions ranged from proposed public housing, drug problems, damage to roads after recent flooding, the loss of a proposed expo and what it would mean for the community, to the failure of the Gold Coast bid for Baywatch and co-ordination problems of emergency services for a small hinterland community. While the Premier may often make reference to the relevant minister for specific details, he initially fields all questions.
Peter Beattie is comfortable in such a forum. He appears entirely at ease and enjoys the repartee. There have been few attempts to dominate these sessions. Diatribes or disparaging personal remarks by people about ministers are quickly and effectively controlled by the other people present. This awareness among the participants of what constitutes "a fair go" is a part of the network of trust that is developed in the process. As a result, rarely do "minders" need to intervene.
The group then breaks up into meetings with the respective ministers. The local hall is set up for the day with a clearly signposted table for each minister. This session is also open to all comers. Each minister, an adviser and the director-general of the department are stationed at a desk and listen to the complaints/petitions from anyone who wishes to make them. This process lasts for about an hour. Some ministers are very busy while others have little trade. Even at the busy sites there is no sense of rushing the process. Each deputation or individual is given a fair hearing, although there is little that can be promised at this stage. The most popular person to speak to is always the Premier. Many, in fact, just want to speak to the Premier. I've noticed, almost invariably, those speaking to the Premier end by saying: "You're doing a great job, Peter" to which his reply is usually the casual "Thanks, mate, not many people say that of politicians these days", followed by a handshake.
The final session on the Sunday is for formal delegations whose members have made formal submissions in advance to allow ministerial staff to peruse them and, in most cases, prepare briefs. Here the responses are more formal and advanced notice allows for more co-ordination with, in some cases, a number of relevant ministers meeting with the deputations to discuss a particular proposal. While some delegations are poorly prepared and need considerable assistance from government aides, people such as leading property developers and university vice-chancellors, whom you would expect to have alternative access to government, also make use of these sessions. This may reflect how difficult it would be to get the kind of co-ordinated response that only community cabinet meetings can offer, where you can be sure of meeting with two or three relevant ministers and their senior bureaucrats. The commitment is to meet all deputations, either that afternoon or at further sessions held on the Monday, sometimes from 7am. The Monday also includes a regular confidential cabinet meeting from about 10am to 1pm, sometimes followed by more deputations.
This three-staged approach develops as a lively interaction between representatives and citizens. The Premier, ministers and directors-general all dress informally, tea and coffee are served and the meeting is carried out in a relaxed manner. All people who approach ministers subsequently receive follow-up letters with advice on how their complaints or proposals have been treated.