In an increasingly polarised world, it was refreshing to attend last night’s inaugural Di Gribble Argument in the Great Hall of the National Gallery of Victoria with luminaries from all sides of politics, corporate and civic life.

There was Paul Keating and Qantas chairman Leigh Clifford, in the same room with the likes of author Shane Maloney, Neil Lawrence and the ABC’s Jon Faine.

Former MP Lindsay Tanner hosted a table which included Federation Centres’ CEO Steven Sewell, corporate proxy kingmaker Dean Paatsch and tough professional director Susan Oliver. Andrew Denton flew down from Sydney for the occasion. Fund manager John Sevior brought his son.

The speaker for the Wheeler Centre event was that one-man tour de force Mark Carnegie who somehow manages to straddle the contradiction of being a pub owner and 2GB shareholder/director profiting from Alan Jones — while also believing in higher taxes for the rich and having been in business with Keating, Tanner and the late, great Di Gribble.

As you might have seen on Lateline last night, Carnegie wants a compulsory system of non-military service. He did indeed walk into a firestorm of criticism and argument at the NGV, under the novel format which saw lively responses from three panellists and then a ding dong slug-fest from the floor.

Despite giving Carnegie a light-hearted spray last night, I actually think there is actually some merit in his proposition.

It’s compulsory to have a passport, compulsory to vote and compulsory to be available for jury duty, so why not encourage young and retired people to volunteer for a week a year, and those in the workforce to step up for a week every several years.

As middle Australia works increasingly hard to get ahead in one of the highest-cost countries on earth, Carnegie is right that more and more people are retreating to their family core and opting out of civic service.

Rotary and church numbers are down, kindergarten committees are being out-sourced to professional managers, tennis club committee are handing their responsibilities to the paid club coach, political party membership levels are at record lows. There is also general disillusion with the quality of Australia’s political leadership.

We all know the problem, but how do you fix it? Carnegie reckons that 38% of Australians are currently volunteering but these numbers continue to fall.

Columnist Vad Badham was the first respondent last night and she did indeed have a tough gig trying to slaughter the HECS system in front of one of its founders, PJ Keating, who took notes throughout the evening but declined to take a pot shot from the floor.

An obvious starting point for Carnegie’s scheme would be the government to provide modest HECS discounts for those who volunteer.

However, it is less clear how you would organise “wisdom transfer” from the old to the young and also how on earth compulsion could be enforced if a culture of draft dodging is not to take hold. The government would be sending a lot of feathers in the mail.

Whatever you think of Mark Carnegie, you’ve got to admire the way he’s prepared to have a go.

As a shareholder activist, this recent Channel Nine hit on the self-serving Millner family was a most unusual development for the corporate club to grapple with.

The bloke is rich enough to not give a damn and prepared to go places where many others fear to tread. Di Gribble would have loved last night, and the Di Gribble Argument looks set to become an entertaining fixture on the civic calendar each year.

* Gribble, a successful publisher and co-founder of Private Media (which publishes Crikey), died in 2011