Appointees to a new Victorian GLBTI ministerial advisory committee have been notified and word has begun to leak out.

Convening the MAC was an election promise, but it took just over two years to get here. A call for applicants went out in March 2012 and closed a month later; interviews in August were followed by six months of silence. And the MAC will be dissolved by convention a month before the next election, giving it just 19 of the usual 36 months’ term.

The MAC will answer to the Minister for Health David Davis and Minister for Mental Health Mary Wooldridge. Under the previous government there was an attorney-general’s MAC as well, but there has been a resounding silence around this. All of the issues raised by Victorian Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby convenor Anna Brown in an Age article this week, concerning legal rights and recognition, would be out of scope for the new MAC. It seems cabinet still views being gay as a health issue rather than a matter of human rights and legal recognition.

Along with a resume and two personal references, applicants were required to respond to nine selection criteria covering experience, expertise and, my personal favourite, “integrity and/or standing”. According to the call for applicants, members will also “represent GLBT communities” and must have the ability to consult with and convey the needs and views of a broad range of people.

This is an impossible burden — how many private individuals do you know with the capacity to do that? There are some, but when expert knowledge and the accumulated wisdom of lived experience collide in a policy forum, the expert wins every time. The result is expert dominance of policy making — the same problem community engagement is meant to overcome — with a thin veneer of participation.

As a public health program advisor I’m a passionate advocate of community-based practice, including engagement, which (done well) can establish relationships and generate knowledge needed for action “with and for” members of communities that are marginal or invisible to the survey and RCT methods that count as “evidence”.

Across Australia, community participation requirements are popping up in environmental and infrastructure planning, social policy and legislative processes.

Public health practitioners are constantly aware of the risk of pseudo-engagement and the empowerment paradox — “giving” communities power (on your own terms).  Meaningful engagement takes time. But many of these engagement efforts are tendered out to market researchers with shake-n-bake methodologies.

At least with a MAC there’s a bit of subtlety about the constraints.

“I’d question the value of joining a MAC for anyone who wants to get stuff done.”

I was a member of the previous (health) MAC. I didn’t apply to join the new one, and I’d question the value of joining a MAC for anyone who wants to get stuff done.

The process and discourse of the MAC act as a giant shock absorber for energy and momentum. The agenda is dominated by internal departmental requests for input into this policy document or that consultation. The language, structures and process are incredibly technical and deliberately stripped of emotion. Public servants are duty bound to prevent the minister from being blindsided. Members can’t speak to the media or community as members without approval from the minister’s office.

At the previous health MAC I saw these last two concerns invoked as reasons to remain at arm’s length from the self-funded independent activist, Rob Mitchell, when he first began kicking up a stink about homophobia in sport.

But the biggest problem is the feedback loop created when people who represent department funded services are appointed to “community” advisory structures. Potential threats to funding make them unlikely to push the department in directions it does not already wish to take, to pass on community concerns about the gaps in their services or sit idly by while other members raise them. They face a constant temptation to represent their own strategic goals as community priorities.

Many gay men’s health services are now community organisations in name only. Gay community remains an important concept, but in practice it has become diffuse, shifting out from under so-called “peak” bodies. It is an experience inflected and mediated by cultural consumption — not a group structure with a shared identity and commonalities of experience that can be “represented” to government.

With the prospect of a change of government, all of this is relevant to communities in similar positions elsewhere in Australia. It’s a huge mistake to trust in these structures as any kind of signal or guarantee of goodwill and security. In government, democratic participation has been all but replaced by a strategic communications paradigm, and communities need to recognise and address this.

Media advocacy can be dangerous for funded services, as we’ve seen in Queensland: many believe the former Queensland AIDS Council was defunded as payback for its punchy, high-profile response to a campaign by a religious group to get its safe s-x posters pulled out of AdShel bus shelters. Afterwards, the LNP government replaced it with — you guessed it — a ministerial advisory committee.

Media advocacy remains the most effective way to apply pressure to government — even when opportunities exist to give feedback through structures like a MAC.

The Rob Mitchell mentioned earlier will be a member of the new MAC (disclosure: he’s a friend). Rob has used strong and simple messages in forthright media advocacy campaigns to provoke organisations like beyondblue and the AFL into action on youth suicide and homophobia.  His most recent campaign takes aim at the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission.

His appointment speaks well of the responsible ministers’ willingness to hear frank and fearless advice. But the combination of an independent community voice on the MAC — backed up by the option of old-school media advocacy where effective action is not forthcoming — may see the government getting more than it bargained for.

*Disclosure: Daniel Reeders writes prevention strategy for a government-funded program — these views are his own and do not reflect the position of his employer