David Marr, smh
April 21, 2008
EXTENSIVE soundings among delegates confirm I was not the only one who suddenly realised on Saturday morning as I was singing Advance Australia Fair that among the urgent tasks we face as a nation is ditching this wretched anthem. Dud tune. Dud words. Dud song.
But that was not an idea 2020 shook out of the tree and no doubt the professional facilitators were relieved. They had enough to deal with. And if you thought the ideas summit produced mostly fuzzy expressions of good intentions, understand that was a job well done by teams of facilitators who fought for two days to order, abstract and distil our ideas.
"Mush," declared Jack Waterford of The Canberra Times as he read their attempt to boil down the first day's work of our "Open Government and the Media" substream - sorry about the language - of the Governance stream. He demanded to know: "What's happened to all our ideas?"
Pity the poor facilitators who copped us: lawyers, journalists, a discreetly attentive Sir William Deane (abstaining on the republic) and Allan Fels pushing the case for absolute media deregulation in the presence of Seven's Kerry Stokes. "We're here to come up with new ideas," murmured Stokes, "not debate your old ACCC reports."
Time was short. Speeches were many. Though we assembled soon after breakfast on Saturday, it was 11.05 before the first participant participated: Professor Helen Irving calling for a convention to "completely reconsider the appropriateness of the constitution in the 21st century".
Within minutes our bright ideas collided with the needs of the facilitators. We have to build a house, we were told, and out came the butcher's paper. Ideas make up the foundations - scratch, scratch with a marker pen - the walls are our themes, and the roof is our ambitions.
So, we were asked, did we think "making the constitution say what it means and mean what it says" an idea, a theme or an ambition?
At that point, we knew we were in trouble. And as we struggled with these vital distinctions, the facilitators hit us with another: "the articulation of a theme" which is not quite an idea and not really an ambition.
A day of housebuilding reduced many of us in many streams to teeth-grinding frustration. None of this made it to the big screens in the Great Hall of the People that evening. Up there it was all "amazing", "fantastic" and - the buzz word of 2020 - a wonderful "challenge" .
I don't want to hear these words again for a while: discourse, engagement, connection, centrality, model, accommodate and opportunities. Perhaps the Prime Minister might avoid a few he wore out at the microphone this weekend: benchmark, benchmark, each and every one, overarching and benchmark.
Don't get me wrong. These two days rootling around in the national too-hard basket were a great thing. Ideas were found. We had to fight for their preservation, but the summit sent out a message that this is a country still willing to have a go at getting the fundamentals right.
It was worth a trip to Canberra to hear how the rhetoric has shifted and the faces changed.
These are the early days of the post-Howard era, but it's already possible to grow a little nostalgic for elite bashing. All gone.
And it was worth the drive down to the national capital just to hear John Hartigan, the chief executive of News Ltd, telling the Governance stream he chaired: "We're sick and tired of vituperative combat that passes for political discourse in this country."
Less encouraging was hearing time and again that the young leaders of tomorrow can't pronounce the name of their own country. What's going to happen to the place if the tongue roll on the "l" goes missing?
More troubling is the return of a cringing question that disappeared in the Howard years. "What does the world think of us?" was the theme of a one-hour Sky News broadcast for which the thousand delegates were co-opted - though time was short and getting shorter - as a Sunday morning studio audience.
We could have used that hour as we fought to rescue our ideas from the mush. We had them on the white board but then they disappeared again. The pre-fab house was taken apart and never reconstructed. Youngsters from think tanks commanded the microphone. Hardened senators held their heads in their hands.
The republic was lost, it seemed to me as the guillotine was about to fall. So I made a heroic last ditch stand in its defence. After all, we had voted 98 for with only Sir William abstaining and Senator George Brandis opposing. But it was always safe and sound, just on another sheet of paper.
So all the streams fed paper into the great maw of 2020 and after lunch all our good intentions emerged in the Great Hall digested, homogenised, wrapped in conference-speak and welcomed by Kevin Rudd. One of the dozen overarching points the Prime Minister made was spot on: "It's just the beginning."