Its long-term value as an exercise in deliberative democracy remains to be seen. But as an orgy of self-congratulation, self-promotion and hyperbole, The Daily Telegraph’s People’s Parliament, held at Parliament House yesterday, was a triumph.

The Tele‘s editor, Garry Linnell, said: “We’ve seen a real push for democracy all around the world over the last few months, but you could call this the biggest push for democracy of them all.”

Indeed, one could almost hear the distant sound of Egyptians raising their glasses to celebrate NSW’s transition to democracy, News Limited-style.

In her opening address to the Telegraph‘s gathering of 93 voters, experts and community leaders, Premier Kristina Keneally told participants to remember the bear pit of parliament is a forum for “robust debate”. She also reminded them the state government has limited financial resources, so expensive ideas must be matched by spending cuts or new ways to raise revenue if they are to be worthwhile.

“Politics,” she said, “is the art of the possible.” But, just as the NSW population has done during the election campaign, the participants ignored her.

Those watching at home on Sky News were treated to a lovefest so intense it could have been aired late at night on SBS. Fifteen of the 17 proposals up for discussion were approved by the parliament, meaning debate was often far from robust.

In a surprise to many, a proposal to decriminalise minor drug use won overwhelming support. Only proposals for a 3am pub lockout and for ethics classes to teach school kids the difference between right and wrong were rejected.

And many ideas, while worthy, appeared light on detail. Take the proposal, passed unanimously by the parliament, to build high-speed rail lines to connect country areas to the city. Or the idea to construct an orbital road around Sydney (that is, in addition to the orbital road completed in 2007).

And it’s unclear exactly what a “referendum on alcohol and alcohol fuelled violence” would achieve.

But Linnell told Crikey many constructive ideas emerged from the day, like Kerryn Phelps’ proposal for a preventative health agency to be established. Opposition leader Barry O’Farrell also flagged his support for an opt-out system for organ donation.

“It was one of the best days that I’ve ever had in 30 years of journalism,” Linnell said. “It was a really outstanding day.

“It was really constructive overall and it was forward-thinking. One of the key things we wanted yesterday was that it didn’t descend into a party-political, let’s accuse Labor of stuffing up over the past 16 years. It was all about policy. We often get accused of covering personality and politics, not policy, buts that’s what we did for six to seven hours yesterday.” He’s keen to replicate the idea at future elections, particularly in regional areas.

But according to one participant, Sydney University lecturer Richard Stanton, “I don’t think enough ideas came from the floor”. He was left disappointed the 17 ideas up for debate were all proposed by experts rather than the public. (Linnell reckons this was needed to kick-off debate and ensure the event was as party-neutral as possible.)

As for comparing the event to democratic revolutions in the Middle East: “Yeah, we talked it up. I’m never going to back off from talking up something we’ve invested a lot of time and money and resources into.”

And to the cynics who say it was merely an exercise in boosting flagging newspaper sales: “There’s no way we can sell newspapers off the back of this. But it is about branding. It’s about The Tele being seen to be involved in giving people a say.”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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