On Saturday afternoon, as the Governance stream participants came back to present their efforts from the day’s workshops, co-chair Maxine McKew caused consternation when she looked through everyone’s proposals and asked, via the facilitator, where the Big Idea was.

The group were most unimpressed. A republic is a big idea, they said. Especially when Bob Debus got up and said it should be in 2010 not 2020. A bill of rights is a big idea. Fixing Federalism is a big idea. What do you mean we don’t have a big idea?

The Prime Minister was clearly unimpressed with the Saturday outcomes from Governance. He ordered McKew to put a ban on non-individual political donations on the table on Sunday, which got short shrift from the group.

The republic was pretty simple. There was no-one against a republic – George Brandis apparently raised his hand when they asked who would argue against it, but he stayed right away from the “Rights and Responsibilities” sub-group. This group, filled with lawyers, constitutional experts and the odd ex-Governor-General, spent a good hour spinning its wheels on process on Saturday, before McKew came in and laid down the law that they get on with actual debate.

Thereafter, they moved quickly to a two-referenda republic proposal, although Sir William Deane recused himself on the whole issue. Overnight, Greg Craven wrangled a deal with Greg Williams, Cheryl Saunders and others to switch to a plebiscite-referendum model, with the aim of separating debate over the form of the republic from the decision to sever ties with a crown. That was the model that went forward on Sunday.

The same group had carriage of the bill of rights issue. While the absence of monarchists from the group was probably about as relevant as the omission of flat-earthers from the sustainability stream, there was a decided preponderance of pro-bill of rights campaigners like Chris Sidoti, Brett Solomon and Matt Foley in the room which significantly skewed debate. The allocation of participants to each of the sub-groups was undertaken by organisers, and conspiracy theorists might wonder why likely opponents of a bill of rights, such as Paul Kelly and Gerard Henderson, were placed in other groups. The bulk of debate over the bill of rights was therefore whether it be binding on Parliament or a simple charter, and whether it include responsibilities as well as rights.

On Sunday morning, when participants were given licence to roam around the groups, Kelly, Henderson and Miranda Devine – who said barely a word, and spent much of Saturday writing her Sun-Herald column – joined the group, but it was too late to redirect debate back to what should have been a more fundamental and necessary argument about whether a bill of rights approach is valid. Conservatives had to settle for having a bill of rights described as having “majority” rather than “strong majority” support.

Meanwhile in the Parliamentary Reform group, John Faulkner, who had held proceedings up on Saturday morning with an overlong and somewhat partisan speech about the need for better governance, was heavily involved in the debate over Parliamentary processes, although he kept a lower profile on Sunday. George Brandis had some success in pushing a proposal for House of Representatives Estimates Committees (which doubtless he argued for in the Coalition party-room when in Government). Harry Evans played his usual last-bulwark-against-executive-tyranny role, but the group eventually drifted in the direction of sillier proposals about community Parliaments and online citizens’ cabinets rather than hard-and-fast parliamentary reform proposals of the kind the Government would have difficulty rejecting at the beginning of the next Parliamentary session. It did produce one of the few new ideas of the whole event, automatic online enrolment for 18 year olds, although at the stream plenary session later, compulsory voting diehards managed to kill off a push for optional voting for 16-18 year olds.

The media and government sub-group was the most dysfunctional and the most prone to participants falling back on long-held positions. Much of Saturday’s session was spent with Michael McKinnon holding court on the minutiae of FOI laws. Media ownership and diversity only got a look-in from Allan Fels, who, to the annoyance of Kerry Stokes, pushed the adoption of the Productivity Commission’s now-ancient Broadcasting Report. David Marr and Phillip Adams surprisingly discussed the need for more funding and independence of the ABC. The specific rationale and role of the ABC (or, after someone pointed out the existence of SBS, “public broadcasting”) was not considered, although there was considerable interest in a C-Span-like public affairs service, a notion that the Howard Government briefly toyed with and which the ABC’s NewsRadio service could be the basis for.

In truth, with the exception of the automatic online enrolment proposal, there was nothing here that couldn’t have been gleaned from a trawl through the constitutional, Parliamentary and media debates of recent years. McKew was right.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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