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The post-Summit buzz

24 Apr 2008

The Governance stream at the Summit produced enough ideas to keep us going until 2020, writes MARIAN SAWER.

THE big thing to come out of the Summit was probably not the republic but a confirmation that in the Rudd era talking about ideas is no longer automatically suspect. The governance stream, headed by John Hartigan and Maxine McKew, had plenty of ideas, and they - and particularly the wording of them - are still buzzing back and forwards between the 100 participants.



Some of the buzzing reflects frustration that there was not enough time at the Summit to nut out ideas properly. Too much time was dedicated to razzle-dazzle sessions in the Great Hall, impressing on participants the significance of what they were doing rather than letting them get on with it.

There was also some frustration over the role of professional facilitators - helpful in moving things along at the cracking pace required, but producing outcomes in unrecognisable forms. For example, the Constitutional Future sub-stream led by Helen Irving endorsed a proposal for a two-stage process to achieve an Australian republic - a plebiscite on the principle of moving towards a republic followed by consultation and a referendum. In the initial report of the Summit this emerges as a first stage ending ties with the UK and a second stage identifying new models. High-powered constitutional lawyers get somewhat irked at having their work mangled like this.

This problem also affected the Reforming Parliament sub-stream, which I led. Our priority was to “Strengthen the accountability of executive government to Parliament” and we had very specific proposals, informed by the wisdom of Harry Evans, Clerk of the Senate. The proposals included: independent arbitration of public interest immunity claims by ministers in respect of information required by Parliament; minimum time and process standards for passage of legislation, including committee scrutiny; reframing of appropriation bills to specify projects and programs ; ministerial advisers to appear before parliamentary committees to explain their executive actions; and parliamentary approval for war-like overseas commitment of defence force personnel (subject to genuine emergencies).

Not exactly the bionic eye, you might say, but addressing huge issues of accountability all the same. Think of the difficulty parliament experienced in extracting information about “children overboard” or AWB. On legislative process, think of the 687-page WorkChoices Bill rushed through Parliament with only a week for committee hearings. On appropriations, think of the “Higher productivity, higher pay workplaces” that was said to justify the spending of $55 million on television advertisements.

Although these concrete proposals for parliamentary reform were endorsed on both Saturday and Sunday they were reduced in the initial report to: “Participants expressed a desire to revitalise the accountability of the Executive to Parliament, as well as to the public.” Without the specificity this became a meaningless rendition of the work of a group that including a former attorney-general and other distinguished figures. We are promised it will reappear in the full report.

Despite such frustrations good things happened. Young women in our sub-stream (including 17-year-old Danielle Vujovich) argued eloquently for the automatic enrolment of voters to ensure maximum participation in elections. Too often young people don’t get on the roll or fall off when they move houses, and they’re not the only ones. This made it through the whole frenetic process to be one of the “top ideas” coming out of our stream.

Not so fortunate was a proposal thrown into the ring by co-chair Maxine McKew on Sunday morning for the banning of political donations except for small individual ones. Although this was endorsed there was no time to explain it to the wider group and Michael Tait, a former senator and justice minister, raised the spectre of a High Court challenge like that which struck down the ban on political advertising. In fact what was put forward was the Canadian model, which has helped clean up Canadian politics without any constitutional problems, despite Canada having a Constitutional Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Already by 2004 political donations had been reduced to less than 20 per cent of party funding in Canada, compared with over 80 per cent in Australia, although public funding was more generous in Australia. Regulation of private donations was further tightened in Canada in 2006 by the Conservative government.

Of course banning political donations is not the only thing needed to clean up politics and restore public trust in the political process - but it is a helpful start. The proposal was a tried and tested one, not the way out idea that some of the media coverage might have led you to believe.

In any case the Summit was just the beginning - the Governance stream has produced enough ideas to enable us to argue our way well up to 2020, particularly on the reframing of the federal system. Just as well the chardonnay drinkers have switched to green tea. 

Marian Sawer is adjunct professor of politics at the Australian National University and Director of the Democratic Audit of Australia-ANU.


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