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The Summit's 'wild ride'

By George Williams - posted Wednesday, 7 May 2008

Along with a thousand other Australians, I was lucky to attend the 2020 Summit. I was not sure what to expect, but imagined reams of butchers paper and the latest in group management techniques.

I was right about both, but failed to anticipate just how chaotic and challenging the Summit would be. The main problem was how little time there was to spell out, let alone to debate, the key issues. Despite the event running over two days, each of the ten streams of 100 was given only seven hours to come up with its big ideas.

At other times we trudged around the long corridors of Parliament House, attended lunches and drinks receptions and sat in the Great Hall as a studio audience for chat style sessions made for television. Although entertaining, the last ate up badly needed time. The result was that several streams came up a couple of hours short and failed to reach a final, let alone polished, set of ideas.


This showed in the reports delivered on the Sunday afternoon. Some had errors, others have been the subject of complaints that they missed ideas and that other ideas were included without agreement. A positive aspect of this chaos was that it removed any fear that the process was stage-managed to deliver a particular outcome.

Despite these faults, I would not have missed the Summit. It was inspiring to spend a weekend with 1,000 Australians who had given up their time to debate the future of the nation. Many had travelled great distances at their own expense.

I was in the governance stream. Our areas included reforming parliament, fixing the federation, protecting human rights and media freedom, open government, participatory democracy and the republic. Many of these have been on the agenda for decades and already have well debated solutions. They are less in need of new ideas than a dose of political will to get them fixed.

The republic demonstrated the strengths and weaknesses of the Summit. A highlight was the strong support for putting the republic back on the agenda. Monarchists have said that the Summit was far from representative, and they are right. It was not a forum like parliament in which people were chosen to represent constituencies, nor were the participants chosen to include all views and perspectives. People were selected because they had ideas for 2020, not because they were to dwell on the past.

What can be said is that when 1,000 Australians from across the country came together to imagine the nation of 2020 they overwhelmingly declared it unthinkable that Australia should still then be a constitutional monarchy. They rejected a foreign monarch for Australia in 2020, especially one mandated by right of birth and subject to laws that exclude Catholics and favour the succession of men over women.

At the final session the republic received the largest and most sustained applause. Like the apology to the Stolen Generations, it showed how we can be inspired by aspirations and symbols and that people want a system of government for a modern, open democracy.


Where the Summit fell down was in its capacity to develop the best plan to take the republic issue forward.

Within the governance stream, I was in the group of 25 people charged with looking at charters of rights, Indigenous recognition, constitutional reform generally and the Australian republic.

Debate over a charter took up much of the time due to disagreement between those who believe that human rights are already well enough protected and those, like myself, who feel that it is time that Australia joined the rest of the democratic world in having a national law to protect basic freedoms.

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First published in The Canberra Times on April 26, 2008.

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About the Author

George Williams is the Anthony Mason Professor of law and Foundation Director of the Gilbert + Tobin Centre of Public Law at the University of New South Wales.

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