May 2008


2020 hindsight

By Robert Manne
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

When my university offered to nominate me to attend the 2020 Summit, I accepted at once. Given that I had recently edited a book of ideas for a better Australia, it seemed churlish not to agree. But there was more to it than that. For the past decade the Right has sought to marginalise the virtual community to which I loosely belong - the left-liberal political intelligentsia - and even to portray us as un-Australian. Even though it was irrational, I knew that I would regard rejection of my nomination and of others like me as one sign that the campaign had succeeded. When I read in the paper that I had been invited, I was relieved. Because of what had happened in the Howard years, I was by now keen to contribute to the summit's Governance stream.

Perhaps the greatest of the nineteenth-century political scientists, Walter Bagehot, convinced me many years ago that the British form of government, Westminster, was superior to its only liberal competitor, the American presidential system. His argument, in essence, went like this. In the American system the executive branch, the president, was separated from the legislative branch, the Congress. As both branches had the capacity to thwart the other, gridlock was inevitable. In Westminster, by contrast, the executive was not separated from the legislative branch but buckled to it. Governments relied on the support of the parliament. If they lost that support, in a single vote of no-confidence, they fell. While they retained it, however, there was no impediment to their will. Bagehot believed that Westminster had solved the riddle at the heart of liberal politics: how popularly elected governments could wield effective sovereign power.

During the Howard years my Bagehotian faith in the superiority of Westminster was shaken. What had become increasingly obvious was that, in Australia, the kind of delicate balance between government and parliament, on which the Westminster system was premised, had gradually been destroyed. Under Howard, ministers had managed to hold onto their portfolios even after evidence emerged that they had lied to the parliament. At the beginning of the waterfront dispute, for example, Peter Reith had told the parliament that he knew nothing about the plan to train an alternative workforce in Dubai. It soon became known that Reith had personally employed the main co-ordinator of the Dubai operation. Ministers had also survived inquiries that revealed culpable failures in the departments for which they were responsible. In his investigation of the Cornelia Rau affair, for example, Mick Palmer found that an important branch of the immigration department had for many years been callous in its culture and slapdash in its work. No minister was held to account. During the Howard years, information was frequently kept from the parliament by the government, without reasons being given. On many occasions - most famously at the time of the Tampa; most recently in the case of the Northern Territory intervention - legislation was rushed through the parliament without adequate time for parliamentary scrutiny, in what many regarded as electorally motivated and politically confected atmospheres of emergency. Because of the long-term corruption of the character of appropriation legislation, where purposes are stated so vaguely that spending is virtually unconstrained, prior to two elections the Howard government had been able to fund expensive and self-evidently partisan pre-election advertising campaigns at taxpayers' expense: in 1998 for the GST and in 2007 for WorkChoices. Both the parliament and the High Court were powerless to resist this public scandal. Observation of these and other matters shook my faith not so much in the Westminster tradition but as to how, in Australia, it had evolved.

During the same period, somewhat differently, one aspect of the Westminster tradition, to which we had actually remained entirely faithful, came to trouble me no less deeply. In the presidential system, Congress must agree to the decision to go to war. Under Westminster, the decision for war is a prerogative of the Crown. As a consequence of this tradition, when the Howard government decided to follow America into Iraq, in defiance of the UN Security Council, the parliament did not vote. The government regarded even a willingness to permit debate in parliament on the question of the invasion of Iraq as a magnanimous concession on its part. Following the invasion, a government appointee conducted the critical inquiry into the awkward fact that Australia had gone to war on the basis of foreign-supplied intelligence that proved to be entirely false. The government was, then, able to control not only the circumstances surrounding the decision for war, but also the process of inquiry into what had so catastrophically gone wrong.

Australia, it seems to me, now tolerates or takes for granted unaccountable government. As a mechanism for accountability, only the Senate estimates committee really works. The parliament now operates mainly as an electoral college and as a sporting arena where government and Opposition trade blows at question time. Even debates are thoroughly debased by the fact that for both Labor and the Coalition, absolute party discipline now prevails. In the four years following the invasion of Iraq not one Coalition parliamentarian, for example, uttered even one word suggesting doubts about the wisdom of the decision to invade Iraq. The only time parliament as a debating forum comes alive is when, on matters connected to religion, parliamentarians are granted a conscience vote.

In the relation between government and parliament, something in Australia has gone radically wrong. Or so it seems to me. I went to the 2020 Summit with some modest hope that problems connected to the degradation of our political life might at least be able to be raised. Of course, I had no idea whether anything would be able to be achieved.

At the opening plenary session, the chosen thousand listened to speeches - inspired, entertained or bored. My favourite moment was the first. The summiteers remained on their feet following a welcome-to-country ceremony. The Indigenous elder who was about to speak broke into a broad smile. "Am I supposed to say youse can sit?" The streams of a hundred then assembled. For the first time, some of the Governance participants spoke. With characteristic good humour, Maxine McKew led this discussion. For good reason, talks were limited to three minutes. They represented ambit claims. Lunch arrived. So far nothing appeared to have been achieved. After lunch, subgroups of 25 met. In mine, two clear interests emerged: more democratic and open participation in politics; reform of the parliamentary processes, so that the domination of government might be curbed. I opted for the group interested in parliamentary reform. Our small group included some of the people in Australia with the greatest understanding of the parliamentary process: the minister of state, John Faulkner; the clerk of the Senate, Harry Evans; the veteran Canberra Times journalist Jack Waterford. Quite suddenly the proceedings became, for me at least, seriously interesting. We were finally at work.

It is well known to insiders that governments habitually refuse to provide the parliament with potentially embarrassing information on public-immunity grounds. We agreed that an independent arbiter should be appointed to investigate whether or not the refusal was reasonable. They also know that legislation is frequently rushed through parliament. We agreed that, unless there was a genuine emergency, both houses of the parliament should have a minimum of 30 days for review. Through common knowledge of what had happened during the inquiry into the children-overboard affair, we agreed that ministerial advisers, where they were exercising executive authority, should be required to give evidence at parliamentary inquiries. It was accepted by all participants that the legislative question at the heart of the parliamentary tradition - appropriation - had been thoroughly debauched. Our group agreed that in appropriation legislation, particular projects and programs ought to be specified. We also agreed, at my suggestion, that governments should follow the recent lead of the British government and undertake to put the question of a commitment to war to a parliamentary vote. The suggestions of our small group were precise and concrete. If accepted, they would transform the relations between parliament and government. By now, my hopes were high.

Following afternoon tea the entire Governance group reassembled. The outcomes of our subgroup and of others - who had thought about the republic, a bill or charter of rights, fixing federalism, a new constitutional preamble, expanded freedom of information, more vibrant political participation - were summarised. Despite the experience and the intelligence of those participating, the meeting was chaotic. It was not even clear whether the details of the small groups' decisions had been accurately recorded. As weariness set in, the hundred was asked whether anyone thought we had uncovered one Big Idea. Only one hand went up. That moment was used to characterise the summit on the ABC nightly news. Next morning the Governance stream reassembled, to settle on an Ideas wish list. My attention remained narrowly fixed on what our small group had decided. The war proposal had been accurately recorded. The other concrete proposals for making government accountable had transmogrified overnight into meaningless motherhood statements. Some time was devoted to their resuscitation.

The hundred then turned to Ambitions, Priorities and Top Ideas. It was rather difficult to follow what was happening. Because of the opposition of perhaps one-fifth of the hundred, the idea I had floated was rejected as a Top Idea. The several proposals our small group had suggested for making government accountable to parliament had, however, apparently survived. As time began to run out, the level of chaos increased. The meeting now more resembled a Mad Hatter's party than a symposium. Often the loudest voices prevailed. Sometimes it was not even clear what the vote was about. Even though there was near-complete consensus about a two-stage program for the creation of the republic, at the very end of the meeting David Marr intervened with a dramatic plea that the republic be included. He was told that the idea was actually at the top of our list. Marr's confusion was understandable. In our haste, no one could be certain what had been decided. I certainly was not.

In the final report of the Governance Group, written at heroic speed over the lunch break on the second day, the wording of our stream's republic idea, by far the most popular at the summit, was botched. From the point of view of the small group I had been in, the detailed proposals for making government accountable to parliament, which had been granted the status of a Priority, had once more transmogrified into something resembling their earlier motherhood form. It was as if the dot points in our proposal, which alone provided it with meaning, had been written in a kind of disappearing ink. I wondered how far experience in other groups had been similar. There is a lot of work for the summit secretariat still to do. I left shortly before the standing ovation for the prime minister, not because I was disgruntled but because, in the area of politics, I am temperamentally uneasy with collective enthusiasm, and because I didn't want to miss my plane.

What are we to make of the 2020 Summit? On balance, it seems to me and to most of those I talked with to have been a Good Thing. During the Howard years a strong message was delivered to public intellectuals and to policy experts that unless they agreed with the neo-liberal and the neo-conservative vision of the government, their ideas were not merely unwelcome but also somehow illegitimate. With the summit, this atmosphere vanished. It also acted as a kind of political theatre, pronouncing the burial rites on one era and the birth of another. By summit's end, the Howard era seemed to have vanished into history. To judge by applause during the plenary sessions, even nearly 12 years of Howard had clearly not killed off enthusiasm for projects central to the national cultural trajectory over the past 40 years: reconciliation, closer engagement with Asia, multiculturalism, expanding civil rights, the republic.

 Of course, there is a danger here of political-optical illusion. It cannot be emphasised too strongly that the enthusiasms of "the best and the brightest" do not represent the general mood. In his noble attempt to reshape the nation's culture, Paul Keating never understood this. I have no doubt that Kevin Rudd does. While Keating's striking Redfern speech probably had, on balance, an alienating impact on public opinion, the depth and deftness of Rudd's February speech on the Stolen Generations converted many Australians to the idea of an apology.

What had the Summit achieved? One thousand members of the political class had assembled for a weekend. The atmosphere was generally optimistic; the process, frenzied and chaotic. Over that time hundreds of ideas had been produced. Some were fundamental: the republic, the bill of rights, a compact or treaty between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, a new federation commission, a national development index concerning social inclusion, a national endowment fund for the arts, an entire overhaul of the tax system, a seamless national economy. Some were intriguing or quirky: a community corps to reduce HECS debt, a "golden guru" scheme to bring the fruit of experience to the workplace, a requirement that sedentary jobs have a mandatory 30-minute exercise component, arts "practitioners-in-residence" in all schools, the development of the bionic eye. There were unexpected insights: the importance of paid parental leave and of not forcing new parents to enter the workforce too early. There were disagreements: over new coal-power stations and GM food. And there were puzzling omissions. In the Indigenous stream's report there was no mention of alcohol or child sexual abuse.

This month, there will be a comprehensive summit report. By the end of the year, the Rudd government will have responded to each idea. What will be accomplished by all this, God alone knows. Only one thing seems clear. Rudd's summit signalled the end of the era of the breakdown of relations between government and all but a small circle of the intelligentsia. Bill Heffernan thought the summit "therapeutic". He was right.

Robert Manne

Robert Manne is emeritus professor of politics and vice-chancellor’s fellow at La Trobe University. His most recent books are The Mind of the Islamic State and On Borrowed Time.

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