Suppose they gave a talkfest, and nobody was allowed to talk?

By my calculation, summit participants had about eight hours of actual working time across the two days of the 2020 summit.

From the time on Saturday morning when Glyn Davis mounted the disco-style podium, which solved the question of whatever happened to the stage from the 1976 production of Jesus Christ Superstar, to the moment on Sunday afternoon when summiteers were called back from rushing the exits to hear one more farewell speech, about five hours were spent sitting in the Great Hall of Parliament House and being spoken at.

The eight hours included a ridiculously tiny two and a quarter hours on Sunday, when most of the key decisions were made, in a tearing hurry, about what ideas would go forward from each stream. A number of participants were furious, particularly after the groups were halted in their work at 5pm on Saturday and dispatched to the Great Hall for a panel session and banter between Rhys Muldoon and Hugh Jackman. Not that Jackman wasn’t effortlessly the most compelling thing in the entire place, but it didn’t have much to do with the business of the summit, and by that stage it would’ve been more apt to have performed Long Day’s Journey Into Night than From Little Things Big Things Grow.

Politicians and dignitaries had a lot to say. Rudd and Davis opened and closed. Michael Jeffery appeared – accompanied by a techno beat – and gave a peculiar speech featuring a piece of ice. Michael Wesley presented some interesting graphs without much context. Ministers and Parliamentary Secretaries opened and closed stream sessions. Bill Heffernan, who these days seems less a mad old coot and more just another politician with limelight deprivation syndrome, gatecrashed streams to talk about the Great North. No wonder one cranky participant tried to interrupt the Sunday morning plenary session so he could get his views heard. David Speers expertly wrangled him, but you sensed where the guy was coming from.

Then again, at least he was there. There were only a tiny number of disabled participants, and there was no signing of proceedings at either the plenary or stream sessions, which tended to suggest there wasn’t a single hearing-impaired person present. If my kids’ primary school can manage an Auslan person for assemblies, it shouldn’t have been beyond the wit of the Federal Government to arrange something.

There was a noticeable drop-off in attendance at the Sunday morning plenary session, and not due to hangovers. The Sunday morning plenary was a panel featuring Tanya Plibersek and three other participants talking about foreign perspectives on Australia, whether we were racist and the outrage that was the Iraq War. Quite why they needed this wasn’t clear; there was much talk about television coverage requiring something more colour-and-movement than the participants working in small groups in their streams. It was a colossal waste of time much better spent back in groups, resuming Saturday’s productive work.

Predictably, you also got the same dynamics observed by countless bored people in countless seminars and training courses over the decades. Some participants said nothing at all the whole two days. Others talked incessantly. Some couldn’t get off their one idea. A lot of people were there primarily for the networking.

But yes, there were positives. The atmosphere was serious but not too serious, but participants came with good will and a commitment to constructive debate. Maxine McKew was right in observing that Parliament House is a much better place when filled with non-politicians. There was a genuine atmosphere of excitement and achievement, even as summiteers clutched their boxed lunches and sprawled on the floor chatting. Old foes were cordial to one another. Gerard Henderson even sat next to Phillip Adams for the last all-comers gathering of the governance stream.

But as to what genuinely new ideas it generated …

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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