Motions: Country Cabinet

Wednesday April 03, 2019

Mr BELL (Mount Gambier) (12:12): I move:

That this house introduces a country cabinet schedule for regional South Australians.

There is a catchphrase I hear thrown around a lot in this room, and that is #RegionsMatter. Well, you are right—they do. Mount Gambier and the Limestone Coast matter. The Riverland matters. The Murraylands matter. Eyre Peninsula matters, the Barossa matters, Clare Valley matters. Yorke Peninsula, Flinders Ranges, Kangaroo Island and Fleurieu Peninsula matter.

The Hon. J.A.W. Gardner: The Adelaide Hills?

Mr BELL: This is where the debate comes in, doesn't it—what is country and what is peri-urban? However, for the sake of not engaging in debate, which is unparliamentary, the Adelaide Hills matter. I have been the member for Mount Gambier, South Australia's largest regional city, for over five years.

The Hon. A. Piccolo: And for many more years.

Mr BELL: Thank you. It is home to 26,000 people, the famous Blue Lake and major farming and forestry industries, and it is a region that chips in more than its fair share to the coffers of government. Combined, South Australia's regions contribute more than $20 billion towards our state's economy. Over 400,000 people choose to live in our regions, and they deserve to have their voice heard. I see country cabinet as a way for South Australians to proactively play a role in government decision-making and to feel that their issues, challenges and voices matter.

As elected members, it is essential for us to be accountable to the people of South Australia. We make decisions in this place that affect the entire state. Country cabinet is a chance to meet state ministers. I accept that the government will probably argue that out of the 12 'truly regional seats', the Liberal Party represents all but four. But what I put forward is that there are only three regional ministers out of a cabinet of 14. It is one thing to say our backbench represents regions, but, of course, to have the cabinet attend regional areas is a vastly different scenario and, in my opinion, a sign of respect to regional communities.

My concern—and I have seen it, although I need to point out that this is not always the case—is that some ministers fly down to Mount Gambier, conduct department-crafted meetings, get on a plane and fly out the same day. Of course, that does not always occur, but it is a worrying trend that I see. I believe the Minister for Regional Development will be down in my area next week, and he has pointed out that he will be staying overnight, so I commend minister Whetstone for that. My recollection of the country cabinet—

Members interjecting:

Mr BELL: Can I have a bit of protection, Deputy Speaker?

The Hon. A. PICCOLO: Point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker.

Members interjecting:

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: Order in the house! The member for Mount Gambier—

Members interjecting:

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: Order! The member for Mount Gambier is speaking. He is speaking to his motion.

The Hon. J.A.W. Gardner interjecting:

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: The Minister for Education will listen in silence. Member for Mount Gambier, continue. Do not respond to interjections; charge on regardless.

Mr BELL: My recollection of Labor's country cabinet in Mount Gambier was a series of meetings held with different stakeholders. Ministers would go out to different groups on the same day. But the important part was the gathering at Mount Gambier High School, where the community came together for a barbecue lunch and informal chats with state ministers and then proceeded into a forum where the Premier spoke to my community and addressed questions from the floor. There was a sense of the government of the day listening to residents' concerns, with departmental staff following up genuine inquiries subsequent to that meeting.

Of course, country cabinet is not new. There is a famous picture hanging in the corridor just outside the Premier's office, where Speaker Peter Lewis went one step further than country cabinet and sought to hold parliament outside our Parliament House. That was held at the Sir Robert Helpmann Theatre down in Mount Gambier. Whilst I am reliably informed that the cost of such an exercise was enormous, I am not advocating for that level of engagement with regions. However, country cabinets, I think, are an important factor in our state's democracy and I would encourage this current government to look at them.

In 2014, it was the member for Frome who was the instigator of the Labor Party bringing back country cabinets, saying, 'We need to get parliament back to the people.' In this day and age, I could not agree more. I am not reflecting on Labor or Liberal in this case, but I am reflecting on the community's disconnect with the democratic process and the cynicism that is creeping into the psyche of voters. I think that they can certainly be addressed by more direct contact from ministers, and I am not just talking about MPs.

Through Labor's process, more than 6,000 people attended country cabinets in regional South Australia. Country cabinet also led to the YourSAy initiative by using the feedback gathered throughout the visit to form an issues paper, which then gave the community further opportunity to have their say. Government agencies had to provide a response to the issues they were responsible for, making the state government further accountable to people in regional areas who wanted their ideas heard. The Fund My Idea grant program also came from country cabinet, allowing communities to vote for projects in their region.

In November 2015, country cabinet came to Mount Gambier, as I have mentioned before. Some of the issues that were addressed were fracking, health care, natural resources and mobile phone blackspots. I think this is a wonderful opportunity for the current state government—

The Hon. J.A.W. Gardner: What was the response from the government then?

Mr BELL: This is a wonderful opportunity for the—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: Member for Mount Gambier, I am going to ask you to stop for a moment. The Minister for Education continues to interject out of his place, so could we cease interjections. The member for Mount Gambier is doing a good job speaking to his motion.

Mr BELL: Can I start again, sir?

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: No, you cannot.

Mr BELL: I think this is a wonderful opportunity for the current government to share positive stories with our community because, if we look at most of those issues—fracking, health care, natural resources management and mobile phone blackspots—they are issues that have been addressed with funding attached to them, and I think it is a missed opportunity.

It is true that at the time I spoke on local media about country cabinet and during that interview I was quite critical of the response to country cabinet by the department. I need to be clear, and I will quote from that interview:

Mr Bell did say the State Government's focus on opening up new export markets to China was to be commended.

'The China focus is certainly a good one and I commend the State [Labor] Government for initiating these China delegations...A number of our producers are already in China that are export ready, but, I agree, it is good to open it up to other producers and industries.'

The State Government's Fund My Idea project which recently benefitted two Limestone Coast recipients was also to be commended, he said.

But Mr Bell said many issues…residents were concerned about, such as fracking…the south east drainage network, had simply been glossed over in the response from State Government.

When asked what score he would give the cabinet, Mr Bell replied, 'Two out of 10'.

'One point for making the effort to travel to the region and…another one for recognising the issues...Congratulations for coming down here, congratulations for working out the issues, but the…response section is very, very disappointing.'

I want to put on record that I was not critical of country cabinet; in fact, I support country cabinets. I gave credit to the government for attending Mount Gambier for country cabinet, but the report that was generated out of that by the department was very, very disappointing because it did not address the issues that were raised and couched on that day.

In closing, I would like to re-emphasise the catchphrase that 'regions matter' and that ministers addressing and attending country cabinets is a good way for this government to be seen to be listening and to respect those who live more than two or three hours from Adelaide by having their voices and concerns heard. I am calling on this government to reintroduce a country cabinet schedule, and I invite the cabinet to Mount Gambier to launch the country cabinet schedule.